Disney Vacation: My top tips for your Disney Family Vacation
(Part 1 of a 4-part Disney Vacation series!)
Mid-April 2017. Perfect time for a Disney Vacation, right? We thought so. But so did millions of other people. (OK, maybe not millions, but you get my point.) The good news is that we survived, and despite some frustration and tantrums along the way, we had a great vacation.
Are you planning a Disney Vacation? Here are my top tips for making it (mostly happily) through your Disney Vacation. It is, after all, the happiest place on Earth, right?
I’m generally a planner, thriving on making lists of things that need to get done, and joyously crossing them off as I achieve each one. I’m all for choosing a vacation destination and having a general idea of what I’ll want to do on the trip, but vacation, to me, should be a bit more lax, go-with-the-flow. But our Disney Vacation trips don’t work like that. This vacation took a lot of planning. Maybe some people just show up at Disney World without having planned much, but I think they probably miss out on the best use of FastPass, meeting characters, and seeing certain parades, among other things. Still, all this planning ahead was kind of hard to wrap my head around – especially the FastPass stuff. How was I supposed to know months in advance which rides we’d want to go on, when, and how to divide up the family so the various age kids each would be happy? But now, having just gotten home from a 5-day Disney vacation, I am glad we were able to skip the lines on some of the most popular rides.
We’ll talk more about FastPass in a minute, but long before the FastPass planning, there are other elements of your Disney Vacation I recommend thinking through:
- Long before your trip date, plan out which parks you want to see, and on which days. This will help you decide whether to get a park-hopper pass or a specific park pass for each day.
- Also think about your family’s mojo: are you early risers who plan to be at the park when it opens each day, or are you planning to have a relaxing morning at your hotel and then rolling into the park after lunch time? (This will make a difference in how you plan your day, and in how you schedule FastPass).
- How late will you stay? Will you be at the park until it closes, no matter what, especially considering what you paid for admission? Will you have dinner at the parks and stay late for fireworks, or are you willing to head back to the hotel pool in the late afternoon if the kids are wiped out at the park?
- Look at a park map, and determine your list of must-see and must-do activities. Prioritize them so you won’t feel bad if there are some you end up missing.
Divide & Conquer:
Are you traveling with more than one child? Do they have different interests and/or are they different ages? If yes, it will be helpful to think ahead on how you’re going to divide and conquer so each child is maximizing his Disney time with relevant/appropriate activities. It’s also super-helpful for people like me, who are scared of roller coasters, to always offer to be the one taking my 3yo on the kiddie rides while my husband goes with R and E on the bigger, more extreme rides. Knowing how you plan to divide and conquer will help if you’re booking FastPass in advance. Look at a park map and select a ride for one FastPass, and book one for the remaining part of your group at something nearby. That way, when you’re each done with your rides, you can get back together and won’t be on opposite sides of the park. I had a hard time conceptualizing this while we were planning – as a busy working mom of three boys, I value all the family time I can get. So, it’s logical that I would want a family vacation to include the whole family, right? Yes, but sometimes a little separation is required to keep everyone happy. It was great that 3yo D could casually wander through the Swiss Family Robinson tree house three times in a row, while R and E had a Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad adventure that D couldn’t have gone on.
Ok, I’ve mentioned it a lot so far but haven’t gone into much detail of the good, the bad and the ugly of it. I have a love/hate relationship with FastPass. Let’s start with some facts:
- FastPass is free with every park admission. It allows you to book reservations for rides up to 30 days in advance, or 60 days prior to check-in at a Disney resort.
- The free “My Disney Experience” app allows you to book and change reservations right from your smartphone, giving you great flexibility throughout your day. (This app also updates real-time to show you wait times for the various rides throughout the park, helping to plan out your next move).
- After you use your three FastPass reservations in any day, you can start to book additional reservations.
- Unless a zillion other people are jumping into the FastPass entrance to a ride at the same time as you, the system does work well to get you to your fun faster.
Free, flexible, and fun? That’s the good. What’s not to love? In my opinion, just the following:
- It can be stressful to have to choose rides far in advance (we did it probably about 45 days in advance of our trip).
- If you’re at the park during a particularly busy time (e.g. Magic Kingdom the Saturday of spring break/Easter week), you may have limited flexibility. There were times we wanted to change our FastPass reservations for our next park the next day, but because it was such a crowded week, time slots were quite limited, and we were unable to find slots that worked for us.
- We didn’t end up using all of our FastPass reservations. In reality, this is ok, because we had a perfectly fun time at the park and then went to the hotel pool when the kids were wiped out. But knowing that we had “wasted” a FastPass ate away at me a little. Remember, I like to make lists and check things off. Leaving some FastPass reservations unused meant I couldn’t cross them off. It’s just a Type-A thing. Nothing to fault Disney for!
So, that’s the “bad” of FastPass, if there really is any. And now for the “ugly.” FastPass is best used if there is a strategy behind it, and some families may not want to deal with that. For example, if you know you are going to get to Hollywood Studios for park opening, and you know Tower of Terror is a very popular ride, don’t book a morning FastPass for it. Instead, plan to tackle the most popular rides first thing in the morning – before lines get long – and reserve your FastPass for midday when the park is even more crowded and lines are often longer. That’s how we managed it, anyway. Sometimes, we’d go on the most popular rides first thing in the morning and then get to enjoy them again later in the day with FastPass. Other times, we left the park mid-afternoon with exhausted, pool-hungry children, and wasted the FastPass reservations we had so carefully planned over a month before.
Have a plan for meals (whether it’s a “meal plan” or not):
This one is a little easier. Quite simply, think ahead about whether you just want to buy food and snacks a la carte whenever and wherever you feel like it, or whether you want to sign up for a Disney Dining Plan of some sort. Look on their websites or work with a travel agent to understand the options, and make sure you use all your Dining Plan credits if you do sign up for a plan – it’s use it or lose it.
Whether you do a dining plan or not, one thing to definitely consider is booking “character meals.” When I was a kid, it was somewhat easy to wander through a Disney park and happen upon Mickey Mouse or Chip and Dale who would willingly pose for a picture with you. It’s much more organized now, with lines to wait in for an autograph and a photo opp. If you don’t want to spend time in lines to meet characters in the parks, book a character meal – breakfast, lunch, or dinner options are available – where you’re guaranteed to have certain characters come by your table to sign autographs, interact with your family, and pose for photos. These meals can be a bit pricey, but they’re worth it if you and your family still see the magic in meeting these characters.
Last but not least, bring your parental A-game for passing the time:
Even with FastPass, or meal plans, or just good planning, there will be times when you simply need to have patience and wait. This can be hard if your kids are anything like mine. I found myself pulling out some tried and true go-to time-passers to try to ease the angst of waiting in line for rides, for the shuttle on the way back to the hotel, waiting for food to arrive after ordering it, etc. Here are some that worked for me, and I’d love to hear which ones you’d add!
- I spy
- Simon Says
- Snacks (bring lots of them!)
- What do you think . . . ? (this is a fun way to get kids to make predictions about things they’ll see during the day. For example, What do you think Pluto will do when he meets us at lunch? How big do you think Spaceship Earth is? How many people will we see today wearing Mickey Mouse ears?
- What was your favorite . . .? (I’m known in my family – since I was a kid, that is – for summing up any event such as a movie or a fair or a museum visit or a vacation with the simple question on the way home: What was your favorite part? It gets a laugh usually, since I’ve been asking it since the mid-eighties and am still asking it today. It’s a fun one. Especially if you can get your kids to explain their rationale).
One thing is certain with a Disney Vacation – there is magic to be found there if you’re willing to find it, and if you have the stamina. It’s a vacation full of fun, but it’s exhausting, from the pre-planning to the waiting to the doing to the writing about it afterwards. So with that, I’m wiped out. I hope you’ve found this helpful, and I can’t wait to hear about your trip! Be sure to check back for parts 2-4 in my Disney Vacation series at www.mobtruths.com (2. Secrets Revealed: 10 Things that Surprised Me on My Disney Vacation, 3. My Disney Vacation: The Really, Really Real (Really!), and 4. Vacation with Boys: What I (Re-) Learned . . . Again.
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