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How To Plan (And Enjoy) A Family Disney Vacation

Yeah, that's me full tilt on the Disney sauce. It's been almost two weeks since I posed for my wife here (she rolled her eyes as soon as I posed). Although it's only been a short time I feel like I've been gone for centuries. Each day the "magic" fades just a bit more than it did the day before. Of course I am thankful I have the gift of life and I'm gainfully employed but I'm no longer waking up to the sound of the ferry that shipped patrons to Epcot. There are no more smiles that greet me in a ginormous lobby. The traffic I'm in now isn't headed to happy-land. No one is asking me if I'm enjoying myself or if I need anything. I'm not powering up at 9 pm in anticipation of a fireworks show that is better than the one that happened the night before. I'm back to my usual station --- the wonderfully exhilarating but thankless job of being Dad. Dad who isn't buying everything he's being asked for. Dad who is saying, "no" and "go to bed" and "throw out the trash."

By my pic you might think it was my first time there and not my daughter's. She went full tilt on the Princess sauce and didn't have a care in the world. Neither did I and that's a good thing at a place like Disney World where you can wind up spending the equivalent of half a year's worth of mortgage payments or more once the smoke clears. In the eyes of a storyteller (myself) Disney is a monster storytelling machine, selling narratives at every turn from the time you wake up until you return back to your hotel or resort wishing you could do more before morning and excited to get going the next day.  Stories, whether written or visual, create the canvas for the mind to imagine and dream. I wasn't about to let something like money get in the way of my daughter's, and to some extent my own, desire to plunge as far down the rabbit hole as possible.

So how did I and how can you experience the Disney Vacation YOU want to have without being left in the poorhouse upon your return to reality?

Set A Budget For Disney World (In Advance)

Knowing what you are going to spend, are willing to spend, are able to spend in advance and then planning ahead is my best suggestion for you to keep your blood pressure steady and your expectations realistic. This requires a conversation between you and your spouse or whomever is accompanying you on your trip.

What items should you be considering when creating your budget?

  • Transportation - plane/train/automobile - Will you be renting a vehicle? How much will it cost? Keep gas in mind. (Side note: The larger the vehicle the better. I'm no fan of gas guzzlers but you want to be able to stretch out and have some space on a long haul. Especially, if your family is going to be coming along. Can we whisper the unthinkable: "Minivan".)
  • Lodging - will you be staying at an affordable destination (a great option if you don't care) or will you dive all-in and experience Disney both at the parks and at the resorts? The latter is also potentially affordable if you plan early enough in advance.
  • Food - Disney has a whole host of meal plan options to choose from, but from what I saw and did myself, bring your own food --- water bottles, snacks (in our case a 50/50 mix of candies and fruits) --- to tide you over between major meals or cravings such as an ice cold beverage or a hot bucket of popcorn or a giant Turkey leg. Some people were dragging coolers packed with sandwiches around behind them. That's a bit much for me, but it can be done. And several popular and high end restaurants have representations at Disney World. So that NYC restaurant you've always wished you could visit or that chef whose food you've heard so much about? They might be at Disney World.
  • Park Tickets - here is where you need to be the most informed and the most careful. Disney offers a variety of park tickets depending on the number of days you want to visit their parks and how many parks per day you wish to visit. It is wise, let me repeat WISE, to plot out the parks you'd like to visit in advance and set realistic expectations on yourself. If you can't go hard for 12-14 hours per day I wouldn't suggest a multi-venue ticket (known as a Park Hopper ticket) because you'll be dead tired well before the day is done. Unless you just want a taste of each park, or have been there-done that and know exactly what you want to see, the Park Hopper ticket is a great option, otherwise stick with base tickets, which allow for multiple entry per day and spend your time fully exploring each park one day at a time. And they've installed biometrics at the park --- fingerprint identification for your tickets --- think non-transferrable at all times.
  • Souvenirs and Gifts - if you're there with kids you can forget about taking more than ten steps without them wanting something so have money set aside for souvenirs so you can say "yes" more than "no" and keep the temper tantrums and pouting to a minimum.

I won't share what I spent because what works for me might not work for you. Decide what works for you and do the math in advance. Unless you're a Florida resident or are there as a guest of a conference or something else, you WILL NOT spend any less than $1,000 if you plan on staying for more than two days (and one night). But no worries, if you prepare and have the money on hand you'll be just fine. There's nothing like seeing joy unfold on your kids' faces when they see the castles and the characters.

When To Visit Disney World

I have to give my wife major kudos for this one. She looked for when Disney was enforcing blackout dates and astutely deduced that those were Spring Break and other holiday dates. We booked our trip just before this week and avoided the crowds completely. The difference was an average 20-minute wait for a ride versus an 85-minute wait. There's something to be said about coming down for breakfast to a lobby with a peppering of patrons versus one that is clogged with hundreds of people coming or going at a the same time, all the time. And even though I'm no fan of crowds as I was departing for home, I had to stop and admiringly take in the power and hold that the Disney enterprise has over all of us who visit and return for more.

What To Wear At Disney World

If you're bringing your kids with you, and even if you aren't, I'd suggest making your Disney Vacation the one you pass on being fashionable and opt for comfort instead…within reason. Wear shoes you can walk in. You'll be standing more than you'll be sitting. Bring an extra layer with you for when the temperature plummets at night should you stay for the fireworks shows --- you should. If you're there for any other reason then do whatever works for you. And it rains off and on, a lot, so pack an umbrella or buy some ponchos in advance so you don't have to purchase a Disney branded one at a premium. I'm still wearing mine as I type this at my desk just so I can say I got my full use of it.


The Magic of Magic Kingdom is a MUST

  • Head straight for the information booth and pick up the daily listing of all that's going on in the park. From character greeting times/appearances to street performances and parades this little slip of paper (not even the size of a standard sheet) will keep you informed and allow you to plan your time in the park so you aren't rushing back and forth from one thing to the next.
  • Princess experiences - if you have a daughter and she's into princesses this may be the thing for you. You and your family can have one-on-ones with the princesses while eating at a number of locations at Disney World depending on availability. Contact Disney in advance and as early as possible if you opt to do this.
  • Be sure to check out the attractions at the new Fantasyland and the long-standing Frontierland, Adventureland and Tomorrowland.
  • The 3 O'clock Parade, the Electrical Parade and the Wishes Nighttime Spectacular (fireworks show) all deserve their own separate blog posts. Just attend them and allow yourself to be a kid right alongside your kids. There is much more to experience at the Magic Kingdom and it may require more than one day depending on how much you or your kids want to see there.

Visiting EPCOT

  • Previously this has not be a favorite of the parks I've visited. But after attending DDA'11 I was hipped to a new attraction called Soarin'. It's a high-flying interactive experience that is well worth the 60-minute wait I endured on this recent trip. 60-minutes is actually a short wait so my advice is to go early or late in the day or purchase a Fastpass (a token that allows you to skip to the front of the line at select times during the day).
  • International Gateway - I was blown away by my stroll through the various countries and cultures presented here. Set up as a permanent street fair, this may have been the only Disney experience I've had that didn't feel authentically Disney.
  • There are other things to experience at EPCOT such as the beautiful flower gardens and the Test Track experience (something for the boys). I didn't get a chance to experience the latter as I was overruled more than once by the two females who came with me on my trip. But there's always next time.

There is also the Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and a couple of water parks if you have the money and more importantly the vacation days to pack it all in.

There's An App For That

Nowadays I've gotten in the habit of seeking out an app for an event, a conference, a museum or college tour. Disney is no different. Their GPS enable app allows you to track in real-time wait times for attractions, directions to parks and attractions, resort, shopping and dining information, to name a few. Download it for free from your respective application store once you hit the parks and you will have your own pocket guide to compliment your experience.

Shopping at Disney

The real question is where can't you shop at Disney? However if you're looking for a straight retail experience separate and apart from the parks and resorts make sure you visit Downtown Disney. It's tagged as the place for "grown folks" as it is filled with a movie theatre, bowling lanes, grown up dining and entertainment, which includes a world-famous act that performs under a tent. But there also a World of Disney store and numerous kid-friendly retail experiences including a Lego store that has some amazing creations constructed just outside the front doors and along the pier located there.

If you haven't figured it out already, the bottom line is that you should try to experience Disney World at least once. I was an adult for my first time seven years ago and a small part of me is slightly sad that I never saw the place as a kid. If you have kids and especially if there is a still a little bit of kid left in you. But it's even worth considering as a romantic excursion with your better half. But here's the thing about magic: Once you've seen it, you'll always have a lingering desire to see it again either to prove it false or to get lost in it. Either way, you can create a wonderful memory, not soon forgotten, for yourself and your children at Disney World.

Disclaimer: During my 5-day stay at Disney World I was provided with two (2) complimentary one-day park passes. The opinions contained in this post are wholly my own and driven by my belief in letting your imagination run wild. I was neither asked nor compelled to write this review. 

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