You can’t effectively plan your Walt Disney World Resort vacation without charting out the parks and the attractions you want to visit. That’s a lesson Richard Conti, director and chief wonder officer of the Science Museum of Virginia, learned years ago.
“You have to plan and most people don’t,” says the father of two boys. “You don’t just hit the park without a plan. You have to know [for example] when you are going to eat and where.”
Conti and his family, who have been to Disney World five times, enjoy the all-inclusive nature of the destination. “It’s hard to find something where you have that many options in one place,” he says.
Terri Rose of Hanover would agree. She has visited Disney World 33 times, usually accompanied by her three nephews ranging in age from 5 to 12. “It’s always an incredible experience,” she says. “There’s something for kids of all ages to do.”
Walt Disney World has four main theme parks: Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios. You’ll find your visit less hectic if you plan the days you want to visit each park. “Magic Kingdom is the best place to start,” says Rose. “We usually go on weekdays, Monday through Thursday, because it’s very crowded on the weekends, especially Sundays.”
Magic Kingdom is divided into several themed lands, everything from Main Street, U.S.A., leading to Cinderella Castle, to Tomorrowland, where you’ll find the popular inside roller coaster known as Space Mountain. If you’re planning a trip to Disney this year or in early 2012, you’ll want to take note that Fantasyland is being renovated, so some of the rides you may have heard about or enjoyed years ago are closed presently.
I would be remiss if I didn’t add in my new favorite Magic Kingdom attraction: The Magic, The Memories, and You! This creative projection show transforms Cinderella Castle into a canvas that displays everything from images of park guests to turrets that spin and rocket into space. The show usually takes place directly before the nightly fireworks, a must-see for anyone. “It’s a big deal for the kids to see Tinkerbell fly from the castle [before the fireworks],” says Rose, who stakes out her viewing spot a few hours before the fireworks. “We go to one of the Kodak picture spots near the bottom right of the castle.”
Nearby Epcot has two distinct areas: Future World, a showcase of new ideas and technology, and World Showcase, different villages along the World Showcase Lagoon celebrating 11 nations. Popular attractions include Mission: SPACE, which lifts off and launches you into an out-of-this-world adventure. Conti, who flew jets in the military, is a fan of the ride. “You definitely pull a couple of Gs,” he says. “It’s very noticeable.”
Rose and her nephews usually head to the same ride my family enjoys, Soarin’, a breathtaking glide over the natural wonders of California. “It’s their favorite thing there,” Rose says.
Animal Kingdom’s themed areas are Africa, Camp Minnie-Mickey, DinoLand U.S.A., Discovery Island, and Asia. Popular attractions include Expedition Everest, a runaway train adventure that combines coaster thrills with the excitement of a close encounter with the mysterious yeti, and the Maharajah Jungle Trek, a walking journey past Asian ruins and live exotic animals including tigers. “My nephews love the jungle walk,” Rose says. “Anytime we can get to witness live animals, they are happy.”
Animal Kingdom’s Kilimanjaro Safaris is where you’ll really get to see the animals – living under trees, wallowing in waterholes and grazing the savanna’s grasses. This is another attraction that you should hit either early in the morning or early evening when it’s cool and more animals are out and about.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios immerses you in the glitz, glamour, and excitement of show business. In addition to Toy Story Mania!, popular rides include Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, a wild limousine ride with Aerosmith, and The Twilight Zone™ Tower of Terror where you randomly drop floors at a time.
Of course, theme parks mean waiting in line for popular rides and Disney is no exception. One of Conti’s biggest tips for families is to go against the flow when you are visiting Disney World. If you are staying on Disney property, you will have the chance to visit the parks during Extra Magic Hours, either in the morning before the park opens to the general public, or in the afternoon after it closes to the public. Conti and his family look to see which park is open early and then head in another direction to avoid the crowds.
There is one caveat to his plan as my family learned last summer. If you desperately want to ride a popular ride, like my favorite, Toy Story Mania!, you must get to the park – in this case Hollywood Studios – early, which often means taking advantage of the Extra Magic Hours. You also need to be near the front of the line when Disney opens the park. Everyone bolts for popular rides. You don’t want to run and push, but you do want to make your way to the ride in a speedy fashion.
Conti had heard about the Toy Story Mania! craze but didn’t quite believe it until he experienced it firsthand. “That was an eye opener,” he says.
That brings us to Disney’s Fastpass. This is the system that allows you to avoid waiting at certain popular attractions in all four theme parks. When you get to a ride that accepts Fastpass you will see two times posted – the approximate wait-time at the moment and the return-time for Fastpass tickets currently being issued. If the wait time is long, you can opt for a Fastpass that will have an assigned return time. When you return, you will have little or no wait time for the ride.
Conti is a huge fan of the Fastpass system. “You do have to be smart about it,” he says. “You have to have a purpose. If it’s an attraction you want to do twice, you need to get a Fastpass first. If there’s no line, you can do the ride then [and come back again].”
That’s what my family did for Toy Story Mania! Two family members took everyone’s park ticket and went to the Fastpass station to get Fastpasses for everyone. They then got in line not far behind us and we all got to ride twice. That made my day.
With a Fastpass, it’s important to note that you can only have two at any one time. That’s why planning is crucial. Also, Rose points out that if you have a child that is autistic, Disney has a special program through Guest Services that allows the family to get a family Fastpass so you won’t have to wait in line. “There is no fee for it and it’s very helpful,” she says.
Another Conti tip: If you are staying at one of Disney World’s hotels, go to the park early in the day and head back to the hotel around noon and rest. “We always eat back at the hotel and hang out at the pool,” he says. “We go back to the park in late afternoon when people are leaving.”
This is a great option for people who have a Magic Your Way ticket with a Park Hopper option that allows you to hop from park to park. Regarding tickets, you can purchase a base ticket that will provide admission to one theme park on one day or a Magic Your Way ticket and add options such as Park Hopper. You will find the longer your stay at the Walt Disney World Resort, the less your per-day ticket price will be if you’re using the Magic Your Way ticket plan.
You can also purchase Magic Your Way tickets with a Water Park Fun & More option that gives you the option of going to a variety of attractions including Disney’s Blizzard Beach water park and Typhoon Lagoon water park.
When it comes to eating at Disney World you can literally eat around the world – Disney World that is. The destination has more than a hundred theme park and Disney hotel table-service restaurants, as well as quick service meals (think fast food) and character dining where you can have breakfast with Donald Duck, lunch with Mickey Mouse and dinner with the Disney princesses. During these character-dining experiences, which are usually buffet or family-style dining, you’ll get the chance to be up close for photos and autographs.
Table-service restaurants offer everything from Mediterranean dishes at Kouzzina by Cat Cora to meatloaf at the 50’s Prime Time Café, where you’ll get scolded for having your elbows on the table.
As far as eating at the sit-down restaurants in the parks, Rose has this advice: “Make your reservations at least two weeks in advance.” You may want to book them even further out, if possible. They may be made up to 190 days prior to arrival by calling 407-WDW-DINE (407-939-3463).
You might consider a Disney Dining Plan if you are staying on-property. The dining plans feature a variety of meals and snacks – both in terms of the type of restaurants you can visit and the number of meals and snacks included with the plans.
The plans have three options: Quick-Service Dining that includes two quick-service meals and two snacks per person for each night of your stay; a Plus Dining option with one table-service meal, one quick-service meal and one snack per person and a Deluxe Dining plan with three meals and two snacks per person each night. Disney estimates that the Quick-Service plan saves you up to 15 percent per adult, the Plus Dining saves up to 25 percent, and the Deluxe Dining saves up to 35 percent per adult.
The Disney Dining Plan is not available for children under the age of 3 but they may share from an adult plate at no charge. Also, children ages 3 to 9 must order from the children’s menu, if available.
We opted for the Plus Dining option last summer when we took our five grandchildren and I will say it does save on adult meals, but I’m not quite sure how much you really save for children who take one bite and leave the rest on their plate. For example, the 11-year-old triplets could have shared a large meal and they would have been good to go. Each family’s situation is different, so you’ll want to figure out whether it’s more economical to purchase a dining plan or to simply pay for your meals.
As moms and dads know, dining is a big part of any vacation experience and Disney certainly doesn’t disappoint.
Check back next month for insider information on the various accommodations at the Walt Disney World Resort. I visited just last month and had a sneak peek at the renovations at Port Orleans and the new Bay Lake Tower’s villas.
This article is part of a two part series. Read Part One: Disney Love