It’s the happiest place on earth, but it’s no small world (after all). Amassing 27,258 acres, Walt Disney World, Orlando, is basically a small city. With 4 Major theme parks, 2 water parks, 34 resorts, over 300 restaurants, 5 golf courses, and world class shopping, entertainment and nightlife, it’s easy to get caught up in all the magic. Growing up I was blessed with a dad who just loved everything Disney, and stayed authentic to his inner Peter Pan mantra, “I won’t grow up”, by taking us on repeat family adventures, and is now reliving the joy all over again with his grandkids. So if you’re planning that trip to Orlando, and you’re not sure where to start, I’ve compiled a list with a few of the ‘bare necessities’ to help you make the most of your time, and show you how to do Disney World like a pro:
Be their guest – Of the 34 hotels on the property, 27 are themed Walt Disney World Resorts, ranging from ‘deluxe’ to ‘value’ to campgrounds. We recently stayed at the Port Orleans – Riverside, which falls in the ‘moderate’ category, and we absolutely LOVED it. The Port Orleans is (you guessed it…) a New Orleans themed resort, with two sides; The French Quarter, lavishly decorated like a scene from Mardi Gras (and even serving up fresh Beignets, the Big Easy’s signature donut), and Riverside; transporting it’s guests deep into the Louisiana Bayou. Both are fully equipped with all the resort amenities you desire, from dining to waterslides to wifi, and being on the river, the Port Orleans also has a convenient ferry-boat stop, which drops you off right at Disney Springs (mentioned below) for an enchanting night out, which reminds me… many Disney resorts include complimentary transportation from your hotel lobby to the centre of the action. From the infamous monorail, to buses, to boats, you will never wait more than 10 minutes to hop aboard (and you can save some money on parking too).
Download the Disney app – Your My Disney Experience account links directly to your Magic Band, a modern upgrade to the wrist-band. Each guest is issued one of these nifty adjustable (water-proof) bracelets (with your own colour and nick-name customized), which then serves as your room key, your park entry, your wallet, and so much more. You can then use your Disney app to book meal reservations, view your ride or character photos, and make or modify your Fast Pass selections. Wait… what is a Fast Pass, you ask?
Take the Fast Pass – Save yourself a lot of time waiting in line, by planning out your schedule in advance. Fast Pass allows you to reserve specific riding times for 3 attractions per day, so you don’t wait in line. It gives you a designated one hour window to check-in at the ride/show/attraction, where you will basically walk right on (or only wait a few minutes), so you can still easily make your way around the park and cover more ground. If you can arrive early (when the park opens), you can hit a few of the more popular rides before the line-ups start to build, and still have your Fast Pass slots to look forward to.
Take a day off – Sometimes it’s good to slow down to really enjoy the ride… and by slowing down, I actually mean splash around and catch some rays. Take a day away from the amusement park action and check out one of the incredible themed water parks that Disney has to offer. Typhoon Lagoon is best-known for it’s colossal wave pool. Unlike most wave pools, this one releases only one gargantuan (6 foot) tidal-wave every 90 seconds, signaled by a loud warning horn from the top of the sunken pirate-ship-replica at the centre of the park. Also note-worthy is the salt-water reef where visitors can actually snorkel over real sharks and rays (small ones), and yes, they provide life-jackets for the kids. Blizzard Beach is a ski-resort themed water-park (ironic, right?), where guests take a classic chairlift ride to the top of the water-slides, which are cut into the landscape and decorated with fake snow and signage (as if you were skiing down a mountain-side). Both parks contain all the water-park staples you’d expect, from winding lazy rivers complete with water-falls and surprises, to family sized rafting rides, and steep solo chutes for the thrill-seekers.
Take a trip downtown – When I was young they called it Pleasure Island, then it became Downtown Disney, and now it’s Disney Springs. Whatever you wanna call it, it’s where the action is after dark. Between the acclaimed dining (my fave restaurant – Morimoto Asia) and the shopping (the kids went crazy in the Marvel Superhero Headquarters store, and naturally they boast the biggest Disney store in the world), it’s worth it for the energetic musical street performances and the delectable food trucks and desserts as well. If you’re still not convinced, there’s also a massive five-story arcade (Disney Quest – more like an interactive theme-park) and a multiplex AMC movie theatre.
Park Hopping – It’s easy to burn out when you’re in the sun and over stimulated (especially for the little ones). Upgrading to Park Hopper tickets gives you the flexibility to move from amusement park to park as you please, within a set number of days, and adding the Water Parks Fun And More option includes entry to both water parks, plus other cool stuff like mini-golf and the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. So you can start your day off hitting the rides at Magic Kingdom, cool down with a pool break back at your hotel (or let the kiddos take that much needed nap), and return to Epcot that evening to catch dinner and the laser show. It’s worth having the flexibility to make things up as you go along.
Dine with the stars – If you have little ones, I suggest you book a character meal. When your kids want to take pictures with their favourite Disney character, it often means waiting in line at various designated photo-opp locations, and it might not be worth using up a Fast Pass selection (since you only get three per day). Make reservations for at least one character meal on your trip, where special visitors (from Donald Duck to Cinderella) come around to all the tables while you eat, and every kid gets their “Kodak moment”. Each of the four main parks (and some hotels) offer character dining. Last time we went to Tusker House at Animal Kingdom, a safari themed breakfast buffet with all the fixings you can dream of. You can look up which characters will be frequenting each restaurant through the dining section of your Disney app.
Some rides are twice as nice – If your kids are Star Wars geeks (like mine), try to get on Star Tours (at Disney’s Hollywood Studios) at least twice. This classic motion simulator has 96 possible story sequences, so each time you ride it’s a totally different journey. We used a Fast Pass selection to ride earlier in the day, and before we left (when the line-ups were dying down), we went back and rode standby. My personal fave? The Rock n’ Roller Coaster – Starring: Aerosmith (as far as roller-coasters go, this one is just pure awesome. Imagine total darkness, neon lights, loud music, and an acceleration of 0 to 57 miles per hour in just 2.8 seconds).
The show must go on – From the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular to the Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show, to fireworks, 3D movies, and daily parades, every Disney show is packed with excitement and spectacle, and there’s something for everyone. It can also be a good opportunity to get off your feet (or out of the sun). Just make sure you have your camera ready.
Oh… and last-but-never-least, and possibly the single most important piece of advice I have; wear comfortable shoes or sandals. You will be on your feet a LOT, and the last thing you want to do is ruin your fun by hobbling around with painful blisters.
May the force be with you!