“TA DA!” Came the exclamation from the kitchen, at 6:30 am.
My husband had just secured dinner reservations for our family at “Be Our Guest” at the Magic Kingdom, which currently happens to be the absolute hardest place to get a reservation at Walt Disney World. This accomplishment occurred only six days before we were scheduled to leave for our trip. Reservations can be made up to 180 days in advance, and people are serious about flocking online to make theirs that early. Fortunately for us, my husband thoroughly enjoys enjoying a glass of wine in the evenings while “trolling” the reservations website, or in this case, his morning coffee time scored dinner at one of our favorite places. When people cancel and a spot opens up, you’ve got to be on there to grab it!
However, if you don’t have the time or desire to scavenge the reservation site like we do, planning is still a key to making your Disney vacation as magical as possible for your family. With the fabulous military discounts, the trip itself is definitely made more affordable. Currently, four-day tickets are less than $200 per person at MWR or Shades of Green resorts in Orlando. Children under age three are still free. https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/special-offers/military-4-day-tickets/
The military discounts for resorts on property also help tremendously with the expense. Disney resorts are divided into three price categories and really do provide options for all budget sizes. http://www.militarydisneytips.com/Disney-Armed-Forces-Salute-Disney-Resorts.html
Some Disney (Florida) basics: There are four parks to visit. The Magic Kingdom, which is home to the iconic Cinderella Castle. There are tons of things for big and small kids to do here. The shows and parades are amazing but for anything that takes place in front of the castle, get there early to get close enough to see. Magic Kingdom also hosts a nightly fireworks show that will require you to arrive early, too as it is Disney’s most popular. Princesses and other character appearances are everywhere here so keep your cameras handy.
Epcot Center is an incredible place to visit, play and learn. Its claim to fame is the huge golf ball that can be seen from almost anywhere in the park. This park focuses on technology and the future, as well as the past. The World Showcase, which surrounds a lagoon, boasts 11 different countries including stores, restaurants and opportunities to learn about the culture in each. There are also many places to see princesses and characters here, too. So if you missed the princesses at Magic Kingdom, don’t worry, their appearance schedules are all listed on the guide. Epcot also has a nightly fireworks spectacular which happens to be our favorite. The fireworks take place above the lagoon and can be seen from any country in the World Showcase. I think we’ve seen it from every country’s vantage point. It’s not quite as crazy in popularity as the Magic Kingdom’s and the beauty of it is it can be seen from many places in the park. On our last trip, we got there early enough to grab a café table in France and have champagne and French pastries while we watched the show. Best view yet!
Disney’s Hollywood Studios is home to . . . the movies! This park features streets and shops paying homage to old Hollywood and movie-themed attractions such as the Tower of Terror, based on the Twilight Zone, Star Tours, the Star Wars themed extravaganza and the Great Movie Ride, which takes you through some of the most iconic movies of all times. Hollywood’s nightly show is Fantasmic, a blend of pyrotechnics and live characters all in an arena surrounding a lovely lake. It’s a must see!
Disney’s Animal Kingdom givens you and your family the opportunity to get up close and personal with some animals you might otherwise not ever get to see in their ‘natural habitat.’ Kilimanjaro Safari is a slow bus ride through the savannah and jungle where you can see everything from hippos to cheetahs, elephants and giraffes and even rhinos. It’s an amazing time for people of all ages to see and learn about so many different creatures. Animal Kingdom’s centerpiece is the huge “Tree of Life” in the center of the park. Just to see it is beautiful, as well as a great place for a photo op, but it also contains a live show, themed after the movie “A Bug’s Life.” There are many other animal themed shows and rides here. This park is also broken into world ‘regions.’ There’s an African section, an Asian section, there’s even a dinosaur section! The dinosaur section includes a huge ‘dinosaur dig’ area great for little ones! In Asia, Everest is the thrill roller coaster ride that is the park’s most popular. This park closes the earliest, so I recommend going early, seeing everything you can and then hopping over to one of the other parks to end your night with fireworks.
Disney’s Fast Pass plus option helps you to “schedule” times for some of the most popular attractions to ensure your family gets to experience as much action as possible. After registering your tickets online you can go through a series of times based on your dates and select the rides you’d like. https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/plan/my-disney-experience/fastpass-plus/
And now, it all links to the magic bands! Magic bands can be selected by color and even personalized. They are water proof, Mickey logoed plastic bands that each member of your party wears the entire vacation. https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/plan/my-disney-experience/bands-cards/
Not only do they link to your Fast Passes, but also your actual admission ticket, as well as park pictures, the ability to “bump your band” and pay for things in the parks. Don’t worry, you decide which bands have charging privileges, that way your little ones can’t run rampant and “bump” things in the stores to leave you with a big, fat bill!
And then there’s the food! Dining at Disney is serious business for us, obviously. At most places, reservations are recommended, but if you don’t want to commit, at least familiarize yourself online ahead of time with the places to eat at the different parks you plan to visit. There are so many to choose from, varying in price and type of cuisine it’s easy to be hungry when you’re there and just feel overwhelmed with the choices. The Disney Dining Plan is another option to help streamline your trip, and your budget. There are some restrictions with this plan, but we’ve used it on some of our trips and enjoyed it. For a certain price, your family can put together a number of meals and snacks per day that you pay for rolled into the cost of your whole trip. We’ve priced it out, and it’s not necessarily cheaper, but paying for most everything up front is convenient. You can research and see what’s considered a snack and a meal online so that you will be well informed if you choose this option. During the Epcot Food and Wine Festival, the dining plan is super worth it, as the food booth tasting options fall into the “snack” category. This festival usually takes place end of September through mid November. https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/plan/my-disney-experience/bands-cards/
There are many options for places to stay in Orlando, but staying on property not only gives you the benefit of Disney transportation to the parks, but you can also participate in ‘extra magic hours.’ Each park is planned to either open an hour early or stay open later and you can only stick around if you’re staying on property. And yes, they do check! It’s a great way to get in a character appearance or ride that had longer lines earlier in the day because the crowd thins out a bit. https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/guest-services/extra-magic-hours/
Staying on property also enables you to ‘ship’ your store purchases to your resort so you’re not stuffing your stroller full of bags. At the checkout, you tell the cashier which resort you’re staying in, fill out a form and the next day, your packages will be in your resort’s gift shop for you to conveniently pick up.
I happen to be a photo junkie. My family calls my photo editing “doing pictures.” My Disney memories are, by far, my favorite photos to edit and go through. In addition to your own camera, Disney offers a Photo Pass service. In many locations around the parks you will find professional photographers to take your picture, with everyone included in your party, in front of the most scenic areas. The pictures are all downloaded onto your magic band and can be viewed and purchased at Photo Pass stations in the parks or online for a period of time after your trip. The photos can get a bit pricey, so picking and choosing is always a good option. Disney also offers a Memory Maker package that can be purchased before or during your trip. It’s a little cheaper to purchase ahead of time. For one price, it includes every picture taken in all the parks, plus the pictures that are taken on some of the larger roller coasters, which can cost even more than the regular pictures. It’s around $200 but if you add up the cost of the pictures, it’s actually a better deal if you choose to do it. https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/memory-maker/
If all this planning makes your head spin, there’s nothing that says you can’t just wing it while you’re there. The planning helps you do and see the most for your money, but there is always something to be said for spontaneity. We plan Disney year-round, but some of my favorite memories have been meals on the go purchased from little stands, eaten on a bench overlooking the lagoon and fireworks viewed from partially behind a light pole with my then toddler’s diaper completely full. But seeing those fireworks light her face next to her fathers’ who’d just returned home to us after 12 long months of deployment was priceless. Making memories is what a Disney vacation is all about!