Today was a great day! Even though we had picked the dates for our trip to Disney a few weeks ago, AND found a steal of a deal on a 2 bedroom condo at the luxurious Wyndham Bonnet Creek, (gasp! an off property hotel! I know, I know…we may live to regret it) Today was the day that I dusted off last year’s free Disney planning DVD, ordered our new free planning DVD and dove headfirst into the Nirvana (for moi) that is the planning of our “Second Annual Smith Family Disney Vacation”! (do you hear the angels sing?) As I was checking the crowd calculator on www.touringplans.com and researching eateries on my new favorite planning site, www.wdwprepschool.com I thought, “what better time than now to finally put together my top 10 tips and tricks list?” (and I actually have 11! It’s like This is Spinal Tap!)
So, here we are. Me with my notepad in hand….scribbled notes from the last few months, ready to impart to you what really worked for us last year and we will absolutely be doing again. (maybe next time I’ll write about the things that we will NEVER do again?) I digress! And keep in mind these are the things that we loved and worked for our quirky family of 5 (aka “the circus”).
11. Order the FREE Disney Planning DVD! I mentioned this earlier. It’s so much fun to start watching this with your kids! In addition to providing a lot of really great information, it lets the whole family see each park, all the best rides, restaurants and hotels. When we busted it out today, the Littles were jumping and squealing at everything they recognized from last year. Lots of fun. You can order yours HERE.
10. Get familiar with the rides and height requirements. Once you watch the planning DVD a zillion times, you may have a good idea of what your kids will want to ride. One of the wonderful things about Disney is the large # of rides/attractions that are for the whole family and have no height requirement. However, there are enough that do, that you should know which ones they are and if your kid(s) are tall enough. There’s nothing like having your little one get up to the ride they’ve been dreaming of riding only to discover they are too small (cue sad trombone…and screaming child).
9. Do the Character Meets! (and don’t forget the autograph books!) This was probably the highlight of the trip for both of the Littles. Don’t get me wrong, they loved the rides and parades and shows, but they talked the most afterwards about everyone they met. We saved a bit of money by picking up some themed small notebooks from Walmart as opposed to the “official Disney autograph books” that cost 3x as much. Another helpful tip is to pick up a few of the larger sharpie type markers. They are much easier for the costumed characters to hold and sign. You can check the daily park info to see who will be where and when. I think the longest we waited in line was maybe 20 minutes. Oh, and it’s free.
8. Get to the parks for “Rope Drop”! This tip comes with a disclaimer, if I am to be truthful. I could never get my sweet, precious family up and out the door in time to do this. Not one single morning. We never made it onto Toy Story at Hollywood Studios, thanks to my little lazies! ( I’m not mad, dear.) But, I know in my heart it is a great tip (especially if you are going when it’s crowded!). By making it to the park before it actually opens and being there when they “drop the rope”, you can often ride several of the most popular rides as well as grab Fast Passes for later. (I’ll talk about Fast Passes in a bit.) Some of the parks do a big fancy ceremony for opening also, which can be fun for the kids. And mark my words, we will make at least ONE “rope drop” next trip.
7. Take a mid-day break. This is especially important if you have kids that still nap, or a husband who thinks the word vacation is synonymous with “nap.” If you make it early for “rope drop” AND the park is open late, this is great because everyone is refreshed and ready to tackle the second half of the day. My teenager likes to go to the pool. We also use it as an opportunity to eat lunch at the hotel. If you are staying on property, you have the perk of the Disney Magical Express, which is the bus system that runs between all the parks, hotels and Downtown Disney. If you bring your own stroller and you want to try the mid-day breaks, that will take you to # 6….
6. Drive your own car. While the Disney buses are lovely, it can sometimes take over an hour or even TWO to get from place to place, especially when the park closes and there’s a mass exodus from the parks. Oh, the lines! They are no bueno. I think we used the buses a few times, specifically when Daddy and I went back to Magic Kingdom for a late night and we’d been drinking (No drinking and driving here, thanks). Also, with our double stroller, it was much easier to try and get it onto the trams than into a packed bus. And it’s difficult to make the mid day breaks really work, when 2 hours of your 3 hour break is travel time. We are going to have to pay for parking next trip, but I still think I’d do it most times.
5. Use the “child swap” option! This is a beautiful thing if you a) want to ride something that both your kids are to small to ride or b) one of your kiddos is too short for any ride with a height minimum. Basically, you stand in line for the ride the first time, while the other parent stays with the non-riding kiddos. Then the parents “swap” the kids and the other parent gets a Fast Pass to go through the line themselves. One cool thing to note is that if you have one child that IS tall enough to ride, the Cast Members will actually let them ride twice. Much fun for the taller kid, probably more painful for shorty.
4. Fast Pass!!! This is probably the greatest thing Disney does for their guests and it’s worth mentioning that the other major park complex in town actually charges for them! At Disney, the Fast Pass is free. What it does is give you a 2 hour window to come back and ride. There are only so many to hand out per 2 hour block. If you use any sort of touring plan, (and I know that you will!) then it will tell you which rides have the most coveted Fast Passes. For example, at Hollywood Studios, Toy Story Mania’s Fast Passes can be gone sometimes before 10am. (This is why we never rode it. We missed the FPs and I refuse to wait in line for 120 minutes for anything!) So find out what these rides are at each park and when you get there at rope drop, have one person in your group take everyone’s tickets and go grab the FPs for later. Keep in mind that you can only have one FP per 2 hour window. But, if you plan you day correctly, you should be able to use them wisely. This one strategy alone can save you hours of wait time in line.
3. Snacks/Meals Now, this is something we have only tried one way. We didn’t qualify for the Dining Plan last year and won’t this coming trip either. For more information on the Disney Dining Plan, click HERE. That said, we are a family of five, want to save some money, but we still want to experience some of the wonderful dining options that are available throughout Disney. (side note….we always go during Food&Wine Festival. Mama loves good food. And wine. We can’t forget the wine.) So here are my tips for eating well and saving $$. Plan to eat breakfast and one other meal in your room. We always get a room with at least a kitchenette. This next trip we will have a full kitchen, which opens up a host of options. But let’s say you just have a fridge and microwave. We arrive with a wide array of breakfast stuff…cereal, milk, bagels, fruit, donuts etc. Then we hit up the local Publix for sandwich stuff and snacks. We will either eat lunch in the room during our break, or maybe order pizza for dinner if we are splitting our days between parks and lunching in the park. So we do one meal per day “out” (and we treat the kids to one character meal per trip. It’s expensive, but totally worth it!). One thing I love about Disney is that you can totally bring in a small cooler with your own snacks and drinks. Heck, you can even pack your lunch if you want, but we let our one meal out per day be our treat. One mistake I made last year was picking where to eat without really looking at where we would be in the park at mealtime. This can cause a lot of wasted time. It wasn’t tragic, but it did leave us with an hour to kill and nothing that fit one night before Fantasmic. Anyway, we pack a small black backpack every morning with some key munchies for everyone. We were never hungry or needing to spend lots of money on snacks! If you grab a snack every time someone is hungry, you can spend a fortune! Also, and I love this one….you can get a cup of ice water from anywhere in the parks that sells fountain sodas for FREE. (and the water’s not half bad) Last year we packed little crystal light packets to flavor the water. If that’s not your thing, you can throw some bottled water in your cooler. If you really want to plan your budget at each restaurant, visit www.allears.net where they have complete menus from EVERY place to eat on Disney property! (I could spend hours on there. Yes, I’m a little bit crazy.) Follow these tips and you can eat well and not break the bank.
2. Pre-purchase Photopass or Photopass+! This one thing saved us hundreds of dollars! When you get to any Disney park, you will see that there are lovely folks wanting to take your picture. They are EVERYWHERE! Every cool “photo spot”. Every character meet. And if you want to buy even one of the shots they take, it will set you back about $15.95+tax. Then there are the ride photos that are automatically taken on some of the bigger rides. Those babies are $ as well. If you sign-up for Photopass, you are basically pre-paying for a CD of every pic that you have taken of you and your fam. If you love the ride pics, then you want Photopass+. We got lucky and caught a sale and managed to get Photopass+ for $150+tax. (it’s usually $170) By the time we got home and I downloaded all our pics, we had 120 pictures. That’s almost $2000 in pics! Not to mention the super cool editing feature that you can use. Heck, we even made our Christmas card last year!! Now, would we have paid for that many shots? No way. Some of them were not that cute. BUT….we managed to capture so many awesome moments of our trip for a fraction of the cost! And the ride photos were priceless. I just read that they have added a new “ride only” option, too. For all the info click HERE.
And finally my #1 tip for going to Disney…..
1. Hit up your local Dollar Tree!! You can seriously save so much money by pre-purchasing just a few items at the ole Dollar Tree. Here’s a list of the booty that I picked up last year. First of all Dollar Tree has a ton of Disney stuff….I loaded up a duffel bag with goodies to hand out to the kids every day and we got away with only buying souvenirs 2 days out of the 8. Seriously. They have crayons, spinning tops, paddle balls, coloring books, kaleidoscopes, magic towels, figurines and on and on. (NOTE>>>this stops working once your kids are old enough to know it’s mostly crap.) We also grabbed some snacks, waters, pump hand soaps, a pop up laundry hamper, an over the door shoe caddy, (great for toiletries) band-aids, super absorbent towels (to mop up rain), ponchos and my #1 find….GLOW STICKS! They sell those things at all the nighttime parades for about $10! Pre-purchase them and stick them in your backpack. It’s a beautiful thing. (side note….dollar store glow sticks are probably old. So buy them right before your trip, or you might find that they don’t glow. Not that it happened to me….I’m just speculating.)
Okay, so there you have it. The Smith family’s best tips for your first or next trip to Disney. Feel free to add your own tips in the comments, or ask a question. My hope is to share my experiences and maybe make your trip a bit more magical. Love and Pixie Dust! J