When Steve and I lived in Florida, it didn't take long for family to come visit us because of the perks of living near the beach and magical Walt Disney World (WDW). I don't think it was because they missed us. It was fun being host to our families and I enjoyed learning some of the native Floridians' tips on getting the most out of our time at the park and surrounding resorts. My family and I are actually in Disney this week and from talking to a few of my friends, I realized that for some the thought of planning a WDW trip was incredibly overwhelming, so I thought I'd share some of my planning process.
I know people who absolutely love Disney and I know people who will never, ever go there. As for me, I love seeing such happiness, such joy. At its core, that's what the Disney magic is all about. That, and the fact that I now have a magical coffee guide to assist me - check this out! There are tons of people out there who have created websites, Pinterest boards, discussion groups, etc. to find the best possible prices, itineraries, and accommodations out there. Obviously, use cautious judgment as you explore.
I suggest starting at the Disney website to familiarize yourself with core information. There's a Disney Mom's Panel within this website that I decided not to dive into too much, but there was a good set-up for a) ask a question b) get a solid answer.
I think our human condition, especially as women and mothers, is that when we get the opportunity to do something so special, we want to experience everything for and with our children and with that comes much amped up expectations. With a set up like that, it's no surprise when things backfire and perhaps spiral into one hot mess. Knowing this, and not wanting to hyper-ventilate during my planning, my rule of thumb is that if I come across a discussion/review board with high levels of ALL CAPS use, I'm outta there. Planning a trip such as this should be a positive experience (it's the land of Mickey and Minnie after all) and remember, you can't do and see it all.
My mother started the tradition of us visitingWDW for her birthday on the year a grandchild turns 5 - since she has four grandchildren, this will be our 4th birthday trip. There is a total of 9 of us traveling. For us, traveling in a larger group has had benefits.
- Accommodations - A larger group can split the cost of renting a house or a hotel suite. These accommodations usually have kitchens that help reduce the meal costs significantly. Two Publix Grocery Stores are on each side of the WDW resort area. If you don't have a large group, research the WDW resort hotels and research websites to take a closer look at floorplans.
- Dining - Having accommodations with a kitchen, you can focus on reserving 1 or 2 really special places to have Character Dining experiences, a nice dinner, etc. RESERVE DINING AS SOON AS YOU ARE ABLE (this ALL CAPS is totally necessary). Pre-purchased dining plans work for some people, but we found the upfront cost to be too much for us and we tended to go off WDW property to other parks.
- Transportation - We used the Magical Express transportation service one year from the airport (not great, not bad). We've used rental cars ever since because of combining Disney with Universal, Legoland, etc. We like having a rental car for overall freedom and for grocery store runs.
- Park-Hopping - You can zone in on the key activities you want to do together (we are focusing on Epcot this year because of the new Frozen experiences) and then allow for some free time to explore separately (this really works well when there are varying age groups of kids).
- Fast-Pass - It's your herding cats wonder tool. Use it. Love it. The pre-booking is tricky, but stick with it because it gets you started with the more popular rides and then when you are actually at the park, you can add more fast-pass times.
Assuming you are spending a good chunk of time in Orlando, the park-hopper pass makes the most financial sense because of the 4 different parks at WDW. However, you shouldn't feel like you have to do all 4 parks. The 2 best aggregate lists of "Must-Dos" in Walt Disney World are from Alpha Mom (I mean, that says it all right there) and Walt Disney Radio, which they change up depending on what's happening at the parks such as ride repair, construction, etc. Lastly, definitely check out any clubs/organizations you are part of like AAA, the wholesale clubs, and your employer for discounts.
With information in hand (and park maps for me to answer the inevitable time-distance-continuum type questions I would get from my GIS map-making husband), I ask family members about their priorities and remind them that the birthday kid and Granny, of course get to make first picks. This helps reduce a lot of waste; the slash and burn technique aids in creating a general plan for each day.
Having some structure to the day and then seeing where that takes us has always served us well. Helping our kids be open to the possibilities of adventure is what has led us to wonderful unexpected moments, and the laughs shared and memories made are forever. I enjoy making a photobook for everyone - always on the lookout for coupons! Nothing beats going through those albums and hearing the kids tell stories months/years later.