"To all who come to this happy place: Welcome!"
Alright! I've finally begun the process of organizing and sharing my Disney advice! At this point it's probably what I get messaged about the most, and I just can't do it justice with a short reply! So here is the beginning of my stab at helping prepare for a Disney trip.
These posts are aimed at an audience of first-time (or first-time since childhood) parents taking their kids. I think Disney is superb for adults, teens, couples, empty-nesters, etc. But, the majority of those going (and making the big investment/sacrifice) are families with small kids. So keep that in mind as you read! I have a stream of these ready to share, but I would love to know any other questions you may have regarding a Disney trip (so far I'll be covering things like food, what to do in the parks, Disneyland vs. DisneyWorld, minor tips that make a big difference and "special experiences").
"We believed in our idea -
a family park where parents and children could have fun- together.
Why do we have to grow up?
I know more adults who have the children's approach to life.
They're people who don't give a hang what the Joneses do.
You see them at Disneyland every time you go there.
They are not afraid to be delighted with simple pleasures,
and they have a degree of contentment with what life has brought
- sometimes it isn't much, either."
Don't go to Disney Parks if you don't want to. Don't go because your kids are begging to. Don't go because you feel like you "should" take your kids. Don't go because your sister or neighbor or friend takes her family and loves it. Don't go begrudgingly and "Fine."-ly. Or even just willingly. Go thrilled.
It is too expensive, too "much," and a disappointing waste of time to go and find yourself miserable. Your kids will be far better off to go on a vacation with you where you are wide-eyed, eager to (and almost effortlessly) become immersed, and happy. The best memories of my childhood trips to the Magic Kingdom are mostly the glowing, bouncy, giggly, wonder-filled demeanor of my parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles. The adults! They made it SUCH a fun experience! So, I think it matters far more that your kids get to experience a new or "travel place" with you in that mood than than you "try to force yourself to understand Disney" if it just ain't your thing.
With THAT said: Just because you didn't grow up with Disney/or haven't had a desire to visit the parks as an adult, doesn't mean you couldn't develop that... especially once your own children are involved. When your little boy loves Winnie the Pooh, it's not a far stretch to feel a little pitter-patter in your heart imagining his face on the Winnie the Pooh ride, or, heck, meeting the Hundred Acre Wood critters "in real life"! Or if your kid loves to dance... sheesh. It's killer to see the tinies prancing about Main Street, or jiving to the live shows. THEY believe it, and it is contagious. But my advice is to "catch the bug" before you go, even if it's a small, early version. Get on board, be "stupid," clap your hands, and look forward to "falling for it." Watch documentaries, find something to be nerdy about (the costume design, the music, the organization, the cleanliness, the business model, whatever!) Even Walt's wife said "But why do you want to build an amusement park? They're so dirty." And Walt told her "that was just the point — mine wouldn't be." It isn't like other theme parks... and I think it should get the benefit of being treated as it was intended. Different, made for magical family memories, hope, inspiration, story, and beauty.
So no sour-pusses allowed! (Unless they fit in a stroller.)
VIDEOS AND BOOKS AND MUSIC
Before we went to Disneyland for the first time, my mom bought us the two videos listed first below (Disney Sing-Along and Christmas Sing-Along). We also grew up watching Disney videos (and hardly anything else, other than Donut Man, Steve Green, and Barney). She wanted us to not just love it for what it was, but also for memories we already had as 5, 4, and 3 year olds! It totally worked. I remember seeing buildings and completely thinking we were at "the real place!" It was REALLY Cinderella's castle, and REALLY Mickey's house, and REALLY where they all lived... and here we were! Playing with them! Just like I had seen and wanted to do! I'm all for anything that will stir up that extra-desire in the heart of a kid and help make them especially excited to be there. Roo has watched all of these his whole life! Here is a starter list of ideas:
- Disneyland Sing-Along
- 12 Days of Christmas
- BBC Walt Disney Documentary Part 1 and Part 2 (maybe more for mom and dad... by maybe not!)
- Winnie The Pooh on Netflix
- Steamboat Willie (Mickey's first debut!)
- Any Disney movie ;) Peter Pan, Toy Story, Frozen, Cinderella, Moana, Beauty & The Beast, Aladdin, anything really! Whatever your kids like... or you like and want your kids to like!
- Festival of Fantasy Parade on YouTube
- Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (and the other Disney Jr. shows. They ain't stupid ;)
- Disney Sticker Book ($6.74 on Amazon)
- Classic/Vintage Mickey or Disney books ($5ish on Amazon)
- It's A Small World ($9.98 on Amazon)
- Disney Hits (more than you could ever need on Amazon hahah Start popping those in while you drive around or have play-time!)
YOUR TRAVEL STYLE
In general, there are two ways to do a Disney vacation. One is the entire kit-and-kaboodle with Disney resorts, dining plans, and tickets. You essentially fly into Orlando, take the Magical Express bus to your hotel on Disney property, and you don't leave the grounds until you head back to the airport 4-8 days later. The other way is the "Most Bang For Your Buck" route. Generally you stay at a nearby hotel, buy a 2-4 day Disney pass, and then do other things in the Orlando area (other parks, pool days, beach, etc) or just leave after a brief trip. My whole life we have done the latter: we never did the WHOLE Disney experience. Which I hope is encouraging to many! We have been smitten and obsessed with the parks our whole lives, and we never did the all that was available to do... so if you can only do a "smaller" version, don't worry! It will be GREAT! There are so many incredible hotels for crazy great prices nearby, and the whole area is made to complement a Disney vacation, so you can have a seriously enjoyable time.
For example, once we flew to Orlando with Southwest points, stayed at a hotel for $27 a night (yup.) and did three Disney days for about $600 (since Rowdy was still two). We packed granola bars and pb&j, ate lots of popcorn, and had one "real meal" in the park a day. For around $950 we got to do a little family vacation, and it was a blast!
And if you do go for "the big experience," it is epic and insanely magical. Two great options depending on your needs and constraints! So choose ahead of time what type of investment and effort you want to go for, and know that whichever you choose will impact the way you can do the rest of your trip. (If you stay in the Disney resorts it's much easier to just "run back to your hotel for naps" than it is when you have to leave the whole compound, etc.)
It is so possible to squeeze in a ton in a two or three day visit, but it's also delightful to have many days to go at a slower pace and not have to "worry" about time. Also: it's okay to not "do it all." I think it's better to really enjoy what you did get to, then have completed a long list but felt on edge all visit. Pick five or six things you MUST Do, and then have a second layer of Would LOVE To Do, and go from there.
WHERE TO STAY
If you decide to do a smaller version of a Disney trip, and don't stay at their resorts with "the whole plan," but are doing a few parks days mixed in with some other area activities, here is how I would go about finding a place:
If you've been following along with me for a while you know I'm an avid Priceline user and am equal parts nerd and activist when it comes to them! I never find better deals and they, supposedly, have a different algorithm than other travel sites. So, while this is a little hairy to track with... I'm going to breakdown a typical Priceline booking for me. As is common with most hotels (but NOT air travel), you'll get the best deals last minute since hotels are willing to lower their prices instead of have empty rooms. So all the screencaps I'm going to walk through right now are for a booking tonight, April 4-5, 2017. When using Priceline the best way to get the killer deals are to be flexible and wait as long as possible to book something. It's important to "keep your eye on prices," and if you notice them going up around your travel date, go ahead and get the best thing you can... because it probably means they are filling those rooms up, and they are only going to get pricier!
Alright, without further ado... here are some examples of a Priceline hunt!
To start, I always go to the "Express Deals" tab. Express Deals are lower than Priceline's general front page, but the kicker is that you don't get to see exactly which hotel you're booking. You get to choose the star rating you want, as well as the general area (they show you the map and what each area is named) but otherwise you have to wait for the detailed hotel info until after you purchase your room. However, I've found a way to mostly "beat" that system...
So here we have a 5-star in the Disney Area for $197 (and at the bottom of the image you can see a little line that says "This deal saves you 42% or more..." This line is very important! It actually gives you a good estimate at what this hotel room would cost regularly, so you know how much money you're actually saving (like, if it's only 15% savings it's really not that great a deal).
Now that I've seen this 5-star, I want to see if I can indeed find the actual hotel I'd be staying at and decide if it's what I'm looking for/a good deal. By going back to the "regular" front page of Priceline I can enter in my search criteria. I will choose the same star-rating and same location as the Express Deal Listing, and see what comes up (you can see on bottom left of this image that I did just so). In this case, I got lucky! There is only ONE five-star in the Disney-Lake Buena Vista Area. This means that the Express Deal is for this hotel... Villas Of Grand Cypress. Sometimes I have to do a little more guessing, and comparing numbers ("197 is 42% of what number...?") but 9 times out of 10 I can end up finding the right hotel before purchasing with Express Deals!
Oooo la la! SooOoo fancy!
On the Grand Cypress website they offer "last minute" deals, the lowest of which is $344.25 for tonight. The nice thing about Priceline, though, is that very often if you show up and they have a better room available than what you booked, they'll upgrade you for free (if you ask nicely!). So you could end up saving far far more!
Then one last little looksie at TripAdvisor to confirm the reviews and compare the prices of other travel sites. In the bottom left corner you can see that $321 is the lowest price with Expedia, Hotwire, Hotels.com, etc. Priceline wins by a long shot here!
The last element you can add to your Priceline game is by bidding for a hotel. They will let you "name your price" and then potentially accept a lower offer than even what is on the Express Deals. The risk is that you only get one bid per star rating every 24-hours and you can get "locked out" of a deal. I use bidding often while road-tripping or when I don't really care where we stay, I just want to save as much money as possible. But for something like a Disney trip I think it's worth it to be able to plan and get what you want. On the other hand, it doesn't hurt... you can always try! And if you don't get the bid, then you can come back and get the Express Deal. Just remember that prices can change every minute, and once you place a bid your credit card gets charged immediately and you can't change your itinerary. It's a done deal!
Here's another example! A 4-star in the Bonnet Creek area with 68% savings. Dang!
Heading back to the main page and putting in my search options (bottom left) I discover there is also only one 4-Star in Bonnet Creek. Yay! So this Express Deal is for the Hilton Orlando!
Not too shabby! And having a great pool is a must for vacation with kids. You know they're so happy to spend a whole day there!
On their website the lower price for tonight is $283. Quite a steal with Priceline asking $89!
In this case, TripAdvisor and the other travel hotels cost more than the hotel's own website! $289 is the cheapest price... always worth double-checking!
The last one I looked at to make this post was the 3.5-Star in the Disney Maingate, which looks like it's Radisson! Which is going for $99 a night of their site.
It definitely takes some time, organization and patience, but that's always the case when you want to save money! Other great options, especially in the Disney area are AirBnBs. Here is one for $120 a night that sleeps six and has a pool! (There are tons and tons, and I feel like they price very competitively for even Priceline hotels!)
Lastly, the "bottom of the barrel" Disney resorts are a fantastic option for budgets while still getting to have the "Disney experience" and stay right on the property. We've never done it ourselves, but our extended family has! And if you can get some dollars off your tickets it might be worth it! So do the math and check it out and see what ends up being the best for your family and budget.
* Not sponsored, just sharing what has worked best for us!
** Keep in mind that every hotel will add a $15-$50 tax/fee on top of the room cost. So keep that in mind when budgeting and booking!
AGREE ON PARK DAY SCHEDULE
What I mean by this is: are you planning to open and close the park? Or start late, stay late? Or go early, leave mid day, come back at night? Etc. (Ps. We are open the park/close the park people... it's "the only way" for us, but everyone is different. We can get in triple or quadruple the amount of rides in the early and late hours, while slowing it down a notch mid-day to soak up the atmosphere and not feel like we're missing anything). Of course things can change and you may end up with more or less energy than you anticipate, there may be opportunities that arise, or emotions that do too. But it's nice to have a baseline plan. Know your flow, your capacity, your kids, your sleep needs, and your travel squad... But my vote is to gear up for full days, and make the most of those early and late hours!
(speaking of) YOUR TRAVEL SQUAD
My advice, especially for first-timers, is to either go with just your family or people that you are completely comfortable speaking up to/are like-minded as you. Since it's so different than getting a beach house or a Thanksgiving dinner, and everyone has their own way of navigating the park, it's nice to avoid any awkwardness or disappointment. Grandparents are generally amazing to do Disney with! Something about generations in such a family-oriented park... it's special.
Go ahead and go nuts with your outfit coordinating. It's perfectly adorable and DOES make the experience sweeter for the family, even if they act all humbug about it ;) These pictures do become lifetime treasures.
I'm the type who enjoys research, so this may be "easy for me to say," but I think reading and researching as much as you can/want to before you go is extremely beneficial. Don't ever feel like your research is creating an "all required activities list"! But once you've read the same things three, four, five times it starts to become a little more comfortable and recognizable. Look at a map of the parks, read the names of rides, get a vague sense of the "city" you're entering. Don't be crazy about memorizing things or making EXACT. STEP. BY. STEP. PLANS, but during nursing sessions or nap times or car pool lanes, read a blog here and a forum there, and just acquaint yourself with the lay of the land!
DECIDE ON RESERVATIONS
Especially during slow seasons, we've often been able to swing a meal "last minute" (meaning we booked a couple days in advance, or a few times even the day of!) but if you're taking The Big First Trip really, really, really try to make reservations as soon as you can ahead of time! And if you can't, be ready to be flexible or turned down for some of the famous places (9:30 pm dinner slot, etc). But! Don't be dismayed... I'm going to do a whole food post. You can eat through the park without going to any of the reservation-only spots and have a terrific day of munching!
As my mom would say, "Prepare your hearts!" There will be waiting. There will be things that get missed. There will be tired bodies, adrenaline rushes, rides that break down, or fast passes missed... SOMETHING will happen and... it's how it goes. Your kids will remember the fun, magical parts... and how much fun their mommy and daddy had. It's nice how they can blur the tougher stuff out so well!
Alright, folks, that's all for now! I'll be back again shortly with my FOOD report! Until then, I have to share Walt's commencement speech on Disneyland's Opening Day (every word is just perfect):
"To all that come to this happy place: welcome.
Disneyland is your land.
Here age relives fond memories of the past,
and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future.
Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams,
and the hard facts that have created America...
with hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world."