We recently returned from our first Disney World vacation with the boys. Since I have a blog, I am now required to write about it. It’s in the Mommy Blogger Handbook listed after, “Thou must share lots of photos of your food, your children or any combination of the two” and before, “Thou must write at least once a year about breastfeeding, mommy guilt or a trip to the gynecologist.”
No worries. This won’t be an online version of trapping you in our living room and breaking out the carousel of vacation slides. Instead, I’ll try to provide helpful information in case you are planning a trip to Disney World in the near future. Because I learned in PR101 that people love lists, let’s call this, “Top 5 good Disney decisions.”
1. Don’t automatically go with a package
We found most of the packages, while seemingly easy to book, did not save you money. We booked our airfare and hotel through Priceline.com and our Disney Park Hopper passes through Undercover Tourist, via MouseSavers.com (more on that later).
Frontier Airlines was by far the cheapest airfare, as well as being the only carrier offering a non-stop flight from Omaha to Orlando. I’d use them again in a heartbeat. On the return flight, we did spend the extra $20 each to pick our seat in advance and get an extra five inches of legroom.
“Save where you can, spend where it matters.” That’s our travel motto; and for us, comfort and convenience matter. The Disney’s Old Key West Resort delivered on both while helping us save money in other areas. We had a kitchen (save money on food); a washer and dryer (save on checked-baggage fees by not packing as much); complimentary top-notch transportation to-and-from the airport and the parks (save money on a rental car, although my parents were there with their car to provide a trip to the grocery store — there are grocery delivery services); and, there was plenty of room for the boys to play and relax (save on our sanity). By staying on property, we were also able to take advantage of extended park hours (more for our admission dollar).
For your park tickets, go to MouseSavers.com and sign up for their e-newsletters. In addition to valuable information every month, you’ll get a special link to Undercover Tourist that offers the lowest park admission we found. It’s reputable and they send actual tickets instead of just vouchers. They also sell tickets to other Orlando-area attractions such as SeaWorld, Universal Studios and LEGOLAND.
2. Think about how your family eats before committing to the Disney Dining Plan
I heard and read lots of great things about the Disney Dining Plan. It’s convenient. You get lots of food. It saves you money. All those things are true … if that’s how you eat. When we took a step back from all the marketing and looked at how we really eat — when, what and how much — we decided the dining plan wasn’t for us. You only save
money if you’re planning on eating a lot of food. We didn’t want to eat a lot of food; and, more importantly, we didn’t want to feel like we had to eat a lot of food in order to get our money’s worth.
Instead, we packed our snacks. It was cheaper, healthier and actually more convenient because we had them instantly when we wanted/needed them. We ate breakfast every morning in our room, so we didn’t have to worry about getting out the door by a certain time. And, we ate a few lunches and dinners in our room, too. That saved money and gave us a reason to relax and provide a little “normalcy” to the boys by having a meal with just the four of us and no distractions.
Side note: Another reason we like to stay in hotels with kitchens is because our eldest has a dairy allergy. Breakfast is a difficult meal to get dairy-free in most restaurants. I have to say, in this instance, that was not a concern. Disney is exceptional when it comes to food allergies. I have numerous examples of how pleased I was, but the most surprising was when we went to the Pizza Planet at Hollywood Studios. They had dairy-free cheese. My boy got to eat a cheese pizza in a “mainstream” pizza joint; and not only that, they didn’t charge us any extra. (You’d think vegan cheese was crafted from the sweat of the endangered Edelweiss Mountain Goat gathered by French monks living in a monastery accessible only by a two-day journey on foot. It’s pricey.)
3. Use technology to help you throughout the day
My dear husband loves his iPhone apps. Weeks before leaving for Disney, he had already downloaded the free Disney World Wait Times app and perused the wait times for the rides in which he was most interested. Before we even stepped foot in a park, he already had an idea of which rides would be good for Fast Passes and when they tended to be less or more busy. He was like the Rainman of Wait Times. Once we got to the parks, we found the wait times on the app were pretty accurate and it helped direct us as to where to head next.
Here are some other handy apps to consider:
- Disney World Maps (free)
- Disney World Park Hours (free) — includes Extra Magic hours
- Undercover Tourist (free)
4. Don’t be afraid to do nothing (*gasp!*) in a Disney park
Different things work for different families. Some families head back to the hotel for naps or swimming. We found the boys did just fine finding a shady spot while still in the park and playing together for 15-25 minutes. We’d sometimes have a snack and pull out some action figures, or sit and talk, or maybe even play the iPhone — but it was something they would normally do during the day at home. It was like a touchstone of normalcy in the kingdom of chaos and overstimulation.
5. Get a good backpack
Lots of people talk about wearing good shoes. While that’s true, I submit getting a good backpack is equally important. (I carried the backpack every day, along with the occasional four- or six-year-old boy on my shoulders, so comfort was key.) I picked up this SwissGear backpack from Target. It provided the perfect balance of being lightweight, but still offering protection for my iPad while traveling. The straps were strong and comfortable with padding that breathed. And, it was deceptively large and roomy.
There are lots of lists on the Internet of what to pack in your backpack. Here was mine:
- An extra pair of boy’s shorts, underwear, shirt and socks in a Ziploc bag. I flattened and squeezed out as much air as possible — thankfully the boys are close enough in size that I packed only one set and even more thankfully, we didn’t end up using them.
- Cheap sunglasses for the kids — despite our attempts to keep track of them, my youngest lost two pairs within the first several days.
- Glow sticks — I got two tubes of 15 each for $1 a tube in Target’s Dollar Spot. It proved to be major money savings during the Fantasmic! show at Hollywood Studios (when they turn-out the lights and ask everyone to wave their glow-in-the-dark stuff) and the Main Street Electrical Parade at the Magic Kingdom. The boys were perfectly happy with them and paid no attention to the strolling vendors.
- Wet wipes
- Hand sanitizer with carabiner to hang on the outside of your backpack for easy access.
- Water bottles — I picked up four of these foldable water bottles with carabiners. They were great to pack/carry in the parks; and since the boys enjoyed filling them up and clipping them to their belt loops, they easily stayed hydrated. It was a win for them. From a mom point of view, they are a pain in the ass to dry and the permanent marker I used to write their names on them kept wearing off. Would I buy them again? Yes. Are they a favorite? No.
- Snacks — little travel Jif To Go natural peanut butter with baby carrots and the GoGo squeeZ applesauces worked great (and GoGo squeeZ wins the prize for most annoying capitalization in a product name). I packed LÄRABARs the first day and soon discovered they didn’t do so well in the backpack — they got squished and greasy.
- Plastic ponchos — picked ‘em up beforehand at WalMart and thankfully, didn’t have to use them.
- Camera and phone — I used my iPhone for most of my photos, but it was nice to have the camera as a back-up and for video.
- Two photo mattes with a Sharpie — kept clean in a ziploc bag, I packed these in case the boys were interested in character autographs. We didn’t encourage it, and thankfully, they were’t interested. It really was the only thing I packed that I would leave at home next time.
- Small toys — I mentioned this earlier. I put two little droid action figures in a ziploc bag and had them on-hand for long lines and for breaks. My sister-in-law also packed sticker books that she pulled out for the boys during long waits. They were awesome.
- Comfort items — Our eldest has a favorite stuffed animal and our youngest has a blanket. While they took up lots of space in the backpack, they were much appreciated as the day wore on and during the return bus trip to the hotel.
And lastly, here’s a quick run-down of what we did, some good-to-know information and whether or not we’d recommend it to others. I included links for more information.
Frontier Airlines — Yes. Checked bags are $20 each. (Shout-out to the woman who checked us in at Omaha. She comped my bag because it was of carry-on size. People in Omaha are so dang nice.) Complimentary beverage service, but you must pay for food. DirecTV is available for $4.99 on the seat-back monitors.
Disney’s Old Key West Resort — Yes. We were in the 31-33 buildings which provided easy access to the bus stop and beautiful views of the golf course. They are two-story buildings, and only a few of the buildings have elevators. If you have difficulty with stairs, take this into consideration when making reservations.
Jedi Training Academy (Hollywood Studios) — Yes. We went there first thing in the morning to sign-up the boys and got a 10:10 am show time. Our eldest loved it, and the earlier show time meant he wouldn’t be standing on stage wearing the padawan robe in the heat of the day. Did I mention the experience is free? And they get to battle one-on-one with Darth Vader?
Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure (Epcot) — Yes. This is free, too. You’ll see stands set-up around Epcot for this. Do it. Trust me. It’s fun. If you do it in the afternoon, I recommend selecting the mission in Mexico because it’s the only one that’s completely indoors. Ahhhh, air conditioning.
Pirates and Pals Fireworks Voyage (Contemporary Resort) — Yes. This is kind of pricey, but it’s a lot of fun for adults and kids and it delivers what it promises: A great view of the light show on the lake and the Magic Kingdom fireworks. The bonus is you get delicious cake, ice cream treats, drinks, popcorn, photo opps with Captain Hook and Smee, a boat ride and interactive entertainment by two hilarious pirates who escort guests on the boat. (Plus a surprise visit by Peter Pan upon returning to the dock.) It was a great time and especially fun if you’re celebrating a special event.
Fantasmic! Dining Package (Hollywood Studios) — No. Maybe this would be a good thing during peak season, but we didn’t see this being worth the money. I called the last minute for reservations, so we ended up at the Hollywood & Vine for dinner. The food was OK, but let’s be honest, you can only keep up so much with a buffet when it comes to that many people. It was messy, loud and the booths were in need of some serious cleaning. The VIP seating area at Fantasmic! was off to the side, so the seats weren’t that great. We couldn’t see most of the pre-show entertainment and we still had to fight the crowds going in and out of the show.
Cirque du Soleil’s La Nouba (Downtown Disney) — Yes. My husband and I recently celebrated our anniversary, so this was our night out while Grandma and Grandpa watched the boys. In true Cirque du Soleil fashion, it was packed with amazing talent that left me thoroughly entertained and feeling like a walrus who dreams of one day being a butterfly. (I think there’s a children’s book in there somewhere.) Bonus, my husband was pulled from the audience so a dude on a bicycle could jump over his head.
Sci-Fi Dine-In Theatre Restaurant (Hollywood Studios, pictured above) — Yes, but in a few years. This was super neat and the adults in our group loved it. You get to eat in a car while watching old movies and cartoons from the ’50s. What’s not to love? Unless you’re our two boys who were freaked out by the old alien movies. Oops.
Other fun memories and favorite rides that you and your family might also enjoy: the boys building their own droids and lightsabers in the Star Tours gift shop (Hollywood Studios); eating dinner at Pinocchio Village Haus Restaurant overlooking the It’s A Small World ride in the Magic Kingdom (the boys enjoyed waving and throwing kisses at the riders below); and riding Soarin’ (Epcot), Test Track (Epcot) — be sure to take time to enjoy the post-ride activities like racing the car you built and creating a commercial for it that can then be emailed to you, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin (Magic Kingdom), Toy Story Mania! (Hollywood Studios), and Star Tours – The Adventures Continue (Hollywood Studios) — a favorite of our youngest, who was revealed to be the Rebel Spy not once, but twice.
I’m sure in a few years, we’ll go back. Have you been to Disney World? Share some of your tips, favorites, must-sees and should-avoids in the comments below.