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Our top tips for a trip to Disney

Written by David Hauck


Posted on May 24 2014


As if Disney wasn't already the ultimate family vacation destination, Frozen has pushed enthusiasm higher than Space Mountain. The Tadpole Team just returned from Orlando, attending the ABC Spring Education Conference, but we also spent several days at the parks and learned a few things that might help you save some time, a little bit of money, and make your overall trip even more magical.

1. No need to wait 
The lines at all the Disney parks can be longer than Rapunzel's hair, but it's definitely not always the case. If you can, avoid peak times -- holidays, school breaks, summer vacation -- and try to go during the week. (Hang by the hotel pool on the weekend, or visit one of the smaller parks.) If it rains, even better; bring a poncho and umbrella and stick it out, the parks will thin out a bit and so will the lines. 
PRO TIP: Splurge on a FastPass+, a brand new offering by Disney. Each day you get 3 FastPasses, which allow you to zip to the front of the line. The best part: once you use up your 3 you can add a 4th. Once you use your 4th you can add a 5th, and so on, just by going to one of the kiosks around the park. Set your initial 3 for early in the day so you can keep adding additional ones throughout the afternoon.
2. It's tough to eat well
With 75 million people passing through the Disney gates every year, getting them fed, snacked and hydrated requires ordering food in mass quantities. That means large amounts of burgers, chicken nuggets & fries at all the restaurants and snack bars. It's tough to get to a grocery store if you're staying on the Disney property, and lugging food to the parks every day isn't easy anyway. Go into your trip thinking of it a vacation from the organic strawberries and farm-to-table edamame, that way you won't stress too hard when you're eating yet another hot dog.
PRO TIP: The Starbucks on Main Street has hard-boiled eggs and fruit, which is better than the cotton candy and popcorn you're going to find elsewhere. For a treat that may be slightly healthier than a Mickey ice cream bar, get a Dole Whip Cup in Frontier Land. It's light, cool, and amazingly refreshing. 
3. Relax the rules
This is a one-of-a-kind vacation, where your kids will come into contact with their heroes. Treat it as such. They're going to eat worse than they usually do. They are going to stay up later -- possibly way later -- than normal. It's not the end of the world. Give yourself a well-deserved vacation from micro-parenting and let them have the extra ice cream or allow them to stay up after dark. Your routine will return soon enough when vacation is over.
PRO TIP: Try to figure out how to work a nap in, whether in the stroller or by going back to the hotel during the day. There is a parade every night at 9:00, followed by a fireworks show at 10:00. Plus the rides thin out after dark, so you may want to stay a little late to make a few more trips through Pirates of the Caribbean.
4. Expect to spend
Yes, Disney is family friendly. Yes, Walt Disney himself had a great love for children. But the reality is it's a commercial operation. It always has been. All the characters are based on movies. They were never really educational characters -- Mickey Mouse isn't Big Bird. The sooner you can be at peace with this fact the easier it will be to handle all the stuff that's going to be to available for purchase. And trust me, it's going to be hard to resist the repeated cries of your child wanting glass slippers or Mickey ears. Unless it's going to come out of your child's college fund, don't set a budget, because it's going to be hard to stick to with the full marketing assault you'll be facing. This isn't to say you should spend an unlimited amount, just know there is going to be a lot of pressure to buy. Try to manage it instead of completely resisting.
PRO TIP: Set toys as a reward -- for staying close to mom & dad in crowds or eating their entire lunch. There are enough things under $20 so it won't break the bank, and instead of just buying you'll be rewarding something they did well.
5. Do "Character Dining"
A bunch of the hotels on the monorail offer "Character Dining" -- a chance to eat with Snow White or Buzz Lightyear, among others. It's not cheap but it's an awesome memory. Dinner with Cinderella was particularly entertaining. The Wicked Stepmother and Step Sisters will have your sides splitting with their friendly snarkiness, and getting Cinderella's autograph is a highlight for any little princess.
PRO TIP: This may be the best meal you get all week. The buffet at the Grand Floridian had the requisite mac & cheese and hot dogs, but it also had Asian spare ribs, caprese salad and salmon with mango salsa, among other foodie delights.
6. Don't get "Frozen" out
As of this writing, Frozen has warmed the hearts of seemingly every little girl (and many boys) from Arendelle to Antarctica. You'll be standing on line and spontaneous renditions of "Let It Go" will break out among complete strangers. This means that all Frozen memorabilia is in high demand. If you're looking for an Elsa dress, forget it. According to the Wall Street Journal, stock will be scarce until back-to-school and the holidays. Either try to buy something in advance or lower your child's expectations going into the parks.
PRO TIP: Try -- and this may not be possible -- to get a FastPass to meet Anna & Elsa. The longest wait time we saw: 5 hours 20 minutes. That's almost 3 times as long as the movie itself. If you can't get a FastPass, the sister duo appears at the Fantasy Parade every day at 3:00 p.m.
7. Download some apps
Technology is your friend at Disney. From the new Magic Bands to smartphone apps, your stay will be made much easier than in years past. With the My Disney Experience app you can change your FastPass on the fly. The Disney World Wait Times app is crowd sourced: as you arrive at a ride, note what time it is, then as you get on the ride, enter the time and it will help the rest of the Disney throng know what to expect.
PRO TIP: Wait times are usually accurate, but can sometimes be off. At one point, Ariel's Under The Sea said 25 minutes when it was 5; Peter Pan's Flight said 30 minutes when it was 55. It happens. Most of the time you'll find the posted figures within a few minutes of the actual wait.
8. Disney is more than just the Magic Kingdom
After you've seen "Country Bear Jamboree" for the 12th time, it may be time to explore the rest of Disney World. Epcot may be the one place on the compound to eat well. Downtown Disney has bowling and the busiest Lego store you'll ever see. If it's hot, Blizzard Beach is a very cool water park with areas for all ages. And whatever you do, don't miss the ribs at Flame Tree BBQ at Animal Kingdom. But don't worry about doing it all; you can't. Leaving some things undone will give you an excuse to go back again.
PRO TIP: At the Lego store you can fill a container ($8.99 or $15.99) with all different types of random miscellaneous pieces. You're essentially making your own set. Very cool idea. 
9. Charge your phone
You're going to be taking tons of photos and video, and probably using apps for wait times, so make sure your phone is charged. It's hard to believe but there aren't any charging stations on Disney as of this writing. 
PRO TIP: The Tomorrowland Terrace has a couple of plugs that you can utilize (plus it's a good place to get some shade), and the Starlight Cafe in Future Land is one restaurant with accessible outlets. Other than that, finding a plug can be hard. Disney apparently wants to keep you in the illusion that you're actually in the 1950's.
10. Bring your stroller
All Disney Parks rent strollers, but you'll be happier if you have your own. For one, the rentals are glorified wheel barrows, no padding and minimal sun protection. (The canopy looks like burlap.) Also, they cost $15 a day, which could have been spent on four Dole Whip Cups! Also, if you rent, you have to return it once you leave the park, so if you're out late and your child has fallen asleep you're going to have to carry them back to the hotel or car. Not an easy feat on your tired feet. Even if you think your child is beyond stroller age, the parks are big and you're going to do a lot of walking, so they'll be happy to be in the stroller. Plus, as mentioned earlier, you may be able to steal a nap in the stroller which, will allow you to stay at the parks a little later.
PRO TIP: If you are staying at a hotel on the monorail you can just wheel your stroller right on. But if you're staying elsewhere on the Disney grounds or even outside the campus, you're going to have to take the bus system. When you get on you're required to fold the stroller, so either bring something small and lightweight. Full-featured Uppas or Bugaboos are going to be a major hassle.
11. Have fun
The best part of going to Disney is seeing things through your child's eyes. If you went as a kid you'll remember some of the great rides of yesteryear, many of which are still there (most notably "It's a Small World"), along with plenty of new things for the current generation. It awesome to share some of those old rides and experience the new ones together. The place truly is magical.
PRO TIP: Have fun. And re-read #11.



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