How to Survive a Disney World Vacation

Last Updated Jul 15, 2011 8:20 AM EDT

Ask me about Disney World, and I start reminiscing about the vacation I had there with my family in 1981. We stayed in a trailer park, rode Thunder Mountain and ate purple Mickey Mouse popsicles. I'd love to take my kids, 7 and 4, to Disney, especially before the window closes completely on my 7-year-old's Princess years.

Ask my husband, however, and he imagines three things: heat, crowds and expense. Our friend Vince, who spent a February week in Disney two years ago, corroborates this version. Here's what Vince wrote to me about being on a Disney Dining Plan:

"You stand in line, cafeteria style, for a horrible breakfast, during which you eat unhealthy food you don't know how much you paid for. You then stand in line to get on public transport to take you where you're going. More often you stand on the public transport. Then you get to your destination, where you swelter in the heat to get on the rides. After a couple hours of this you're drenched to the bone with sweat. Then, for lunch, you stand in line and repeat the same fiasco you had during breakfast, and by this time the lines are gargantuan.

Now it's time for dinner. On one night there, we waited in the heat for 30 minutes until our bus arrived. We got on the bus, and it was as crowded as a Japanese subway. Our dinner reservation (per the 'meal plan') was at a restaurant across the property. So we stood, strap-hanging, on the bus for 45 minutes listening to a tape loop of 'It's a Small World After All.' And being on that bus, holding a strap, while our poor daughter banged into my thighs the entire time, made it seem very small indeed."
Plenty of families we know have been to Disney with a lot more happiness and success than Vince's family. I asked my friends, and also Bob Sehlinger, author of The Unofficial Guide Walt Disney World 2011, for their tips on surviving -- and enjoying -- the vacation. Here goes:

Build in downtime: This seems counterintuitive, if you want to get the most for your money. But spending every waking hour riding rides and viewing attractions is a recipe for burnout and misery. Plan a morning off, or take an afternoon with a nap followed by a dip in the hotel pool. Be realistic about your family's energy level in the heat, especially if you have young 'uns and you're hoping to see fireworks later.

Start each day early: Plan to arrive at your destination 30 minutes before the gates open. Have your tickets and be ready to go. Take the early-bird routine seriously, and enjoy the first hour without fighting the crowds.

Skip the meal plan: That's according to Sehlinger and Vince, anyway. (Vince's wife, however, thinks they got a good deal with the meal plan.) Sehlinger says there's not enough flexibility with the meal plan, and kids' choices are overly restrictive -- even the pickiest tot can eat chicken fingers and French fries only so many times during a week. Or if you're standing in line for a ride during lunch hour, and you end up eating lunch at 2:30, what do you do about the 6 p.m. dinner reservations you booked six months previously?

Rent a car: To avoid strap-hanging around the various attractions, rent a car. Except for the Magic Kingdom, every other park has ample parking close to the main entrance. According to Sehlinger, the Magic Kingdom's parking lot is "the size of Vermont," and then requires a monorail ride to get in, so don't drive yourself there.

Make a list of each family member's priorities: Yeah, your toddler could ride Dumbo all day, but your teen wants Space Mountain. Make a list, and figure out how to do it so everyone is happy. Be realistic. A four-year-old can't walk too fast.

Go Off-Peak: From a few days after Thanksgiving until about December 20, you'll find beautiful weather, gorgeous holiday decorations, and few crowds, Sehlinger says.

Accommodations? You get what you pay for. The luxury rooms are luxurious. The value rooms are serviceable. You don't have to stay in the resort, of course, especially if you rent a car. And many outside hotels run shuttle buses to the attractions. The only real steal to be had on accommodations inside the resort is if you're able to connect with someone who has Disney timeshare points to burn.

Determine who is a Disney person, and who isn't: This gem comes from Vince's wife. "I found out I was the only one in my family who is a Disney person -- the other two are not -- and I drove them crazy tugging on them and dragging them around longer hours at the parks than they wanted. A Disney person is someone who responds positively to a suggestion like, 'Hey, if we take that short cut to Tomorrowland we'll have time to hit Pirates, Haunted House and Space Mountain one more time before closing.' A normal person would roll their eyes or turn around and hail the nearest park conveyance to the parking lot."

Image courtesy: Katie Rommel-Esham/Wikimedia Commons

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