Going to Disney World? How to plan for the most wonderful family trip

Photo © Disney

While Disney World has been laid out to give families a fun and happy vacation—filled with rides, shows, characters and more—devoting a bit of time to thoughtful planning can help make your adventure go more smoothly and cost less money.

Before booking anything, one needs to decide how many days and how much money the family has to spend, and what your vacation priorities are for this trip to Orlando, Fla. For example, my family, especially my husband, likes to have a good meal, so we make a reservation at a choice restaurant months in advance. My sister’s family is up and out early and goes all day. My family starts later but stays out all night—even after midnight now that the kids are teens. We pay attention to late park hours while my sister’s family looks for the early park hours.

My recommendations come from visits spanning 40 years—as a teen, a single adult and a married parent with two babies, children and now teens. And, of course, advice from friends and other Disney aficionados. Many books are available that provide more tips and maps. If you want more advice, invest in one of the books, too. (I’ve been to Disneyland, the first park, in California, but I prefer the Florida location because of its roomier size.)

The trip breaks down into four main categories: travel, hotel, park visits and food. Consider also the ages and temperaments of your children—or any other particular relatives who may join you. At about age 7, my daughter couldn’t wait to get to the Haunted Mansion in the Magic Kingdom—until we got there. Then she couldn’t take the buildup to the scary event.

I knew the ride was not really that scary, but she wouldn’t believe me. Before we got to the actual ride itself, I had to ask a staff member for the quick-exit door—every attraction has one. Somehow my daughter mustered her courage and we returned to complete the ride the next day, several times, to her newfound delight. And her favorite souvenir was a book about the Haunted Mansion she purchased in a bookstore/coffee shop in Hollywood Studios. Other rides may be met with disappointment if a young child is not tall enough. Check out the height requirements online before planning your visit.


From Central New York, I highly recommend the direct, nonstop morning flight via JetBlue from Syracuse’s Hancock International Airport to Orlando. If you’re staying in a Disney on-site hotel, a Disney coach bus will take you and your luggage to your hotel. The service will even “magically” get your luggage to your room without you having to retrieve it in the airport.

If your family likes to drive and has the time, of course, driving over two to three days to Florida will save on airplane tickets. But most people don’t have extra days to spend on the road. The nonstop JetBlue flight saves time, and time is precious when visiting Disney World: Every extra hour could mean an extra ride—or two if the lines are short.

Kids of all ages like to fly JetBlue because every seat comes with its own TV screen. It is fun and this is part of the vacation.


Unless you’re one of the lucky ones with family near Orlando, a hotel will be part of your visit to Disney World. There are three options to choose among: a Disney hotel “on site,” which means within the park’s boundaries and includes free bus transportation anywhere in the parks; a non-Disney hotel, which is right next to the Downtown Disney entertainment area or Lake Buena Vista shopping area and often includes the free bus transportation; or an off-site hotel or motel, for which you’d probably need a car to drive to the park each day unless it offers regular shuttles. Each hotel type has advantages and disadvantages.

The best part of staying at a Disney hotel is that you never have to leave. The experience is all Disney, all the time. And days at Disney World are very special, so keeping the Disney-ness going all the time adds to the festivity. Kids have “hidden Mickeys” to look for wherever they go, Mickey Mouse ear soap to use, Disney shampoo, and other character items.

Then, depending on the resort one chooses, there’s décor. For example, the Animal Kingdom Lodge features African animals that live there, right outside your hotel room window or balcony. That was pretty amazing. We went to sleep barely able to make out the outline of the giant African cows lying outside and woke up to them still there. Meanwhile, the giraffes roam through the area along with zebras and a flock of birds. That was worth the money, although the hotel’s location added about 10 minutes to the bus ride to most Disney World parks, except for the Animal Kingdom.

While the Animal Kingdom Lodge is at the pricier end, the Disney Value Resorts offer much more economical stays. We stayed there when my kids were 1 and 3 and appreciated the playground right outside the Disney All-Star Sports Resort and knowing that we weren’t spending too much on little children.

On one visit we stayed at the BoardWalk Inn because my mother-in-law joined us. This hotel had walking access to Epcot, her favorite park, and shops nearby for her to visit while we rode the rides in other parks. As a teenager on my first visit, I was disappointed when our room at the Contemporary Resort, where the monorail passes through, was not in the main building. We had to walk outside and along a path to a first-floor room in a smaller wing. I tried to hide my disappointment until we got into the room and realized it faced a lagoon and beach. Our room opened onto that beach where we enjoyed the view and my mother-in-law sat on the patio to watch me ride a small speedboat! It turned out to be a very special spot.

On another visit my aunt and I stayed in a non-Disney Lake Buena Vista hotel from which we could walk to the Downtown Disney area or take a Disney bus to the parks. For even more savings, I stayed with my sister’s family in a hotel barely 10 minutes from the Disney property. For substantial savings, we enjoyed a hot breakfast buffet, before driving our rented car to Disney World each morning. Time spent riding Disney’s buses may be similar to time spent driving in each morning; select your preference and price range.

Some advice: Disney tries not to disappoint. If you don’t like something, let someone know. The employees have orders to make everyone’s day special. For example, when we arrived in our room at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, the view was mostly of construction. I called and asked for a room with a real view (for which we were paying top dollar); we were relocated immediately. When my son got separated from us near the Test Track ride in Epcot, a staff member told him to wait by the entrance with two staff members. When my husband, daughter and I arrived from separate directions, we had a reunion. We still had two FastPasses for the ride, which would allow two of us to go to the head of the line. As my family headed for two separate lines, one staff member said, “Oh no! Why don’t you all take the FastPass lane?” A happy, relieved and still shaken family did just that.

Park Visits

Disney World is divided into four main parks and then some: The original Magic Kingdom, where fireworks light up the sky over Cinderella’s castle each night; Epcot, featuring a future world and 11 countries’ pavilions arranged around a lagoon which launches a light show each night; Hollywood Studios, where one can learn a little about how movies are made; and Animal Kingdom, where hundreds of animals live. Each of these parks includes rides, restaurants, performances and parades on a daily basis. A four- to five-day visit is recommended if your family wants to spend a day at each park. We always wish we had added another day to our visit so we could spend some time at the hotel pool; we vow to do that someday.

Disney also owns two water parks in Orlando: Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. Tickets for the water parks are bought separately from the main theme parks. I recommend putting aside the water parks for initial visits unless that’s your family’s “thing.” Central New York has several water parks, so I say save those for summertime and stick to the theme parks when at Disney. I’ve spent a very enjoyable day at Blizzard Beach, but I haven’t taken my family there because we prefer theme park rides. Disney more recently has added the DisneyQuest Interactive Indoor Theme Park of video games and 3D experiences; ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex; a golf course; and two miniature golf courses. These newer venues certainly allow more options for families returning to Disney World again and again.


The basic ticket costs about $100 per person (over age 3) for the first day and costs $15 less for each subsequent day. After four days, the cost for adding another day seems minimal at $63 a person. I’ve learned not to buy a park ticket for the day we arrive because there’s plenty to do away from the parks and with Syracuse’s unpredictable winter weather, one can’t count on arriving on time. We’ve done this twice and headed to Downtown Disney for dinner—on a Mississippi Steamboat one time and at the Rainforest Cafe the other. Both evenings ended with dessert at the Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop. It’s a good time to check out the literally thousands of souvenir possibilities or get kids set up with a lanyard and pins to trade. Also, if arriving from a Syracuse-area winter, it’s just nice to enjoy the warmth and good weather. If it’s warm enough out, the family also could take a dip in the hotel pool.

Decide whether your family will stay in one park all day or may want to head to a second park at night. If so, then you’ll need a Park Hopper ticket; these allow each person to visit all the parks each day, including one new park, such as the DisneyQuest game park or miniature golf area.


This invention has changed the experience of waiting in lines by giving each visitor three rides he or she may get quick access to each day. This is the most important advance planning. Each family must decide upon entering a park—or now even ahead of time—which rides it will want fast admission to. Most rides now have two lines: regular speed and FastPass. If you hold a FastPass, at a designated time, you may enter that line and move ahead of the regular line, often to just a 5- or 10-minute wait. The downside to the FastPass is that you might be on the other side of the park when your designated time begins. One may use the FastPass any time after the entry time, however.

Hint: Get out of the sun and enjoy the coolness of the Pirates of the Caribbean boat trip. The Hall of Presidents is another good spot to take a cool break sitting down. Sorry, Abe, but that’s what I like about this historical attraction.

On the subject of souvenirs: If you’re planning to let your kids start buying and trading Disney pins, buy some in advance on eBay. I bought 50 pins for about $25 before our last visit. Pins in the park can cost from $4 to $12 each. My kids sorted the pins among themselves and two friends who joined us. Everyone went in prepared to trade and then buy some new favorites. One friend bought an inexpensive lanyard for her pins instead of an official Disney one. Disney employees are required to trade any pin on their lanyard, so children should not hesitate to ask!

Try not to get too swept up in the Disneymania for clothing, souvenirs and anything else that one can put a logo on. I try to purchase souvenirs that I won’t be embarrassed wearing and will use after returning home. While there, everyone wears so much Disney clothing that one may start to think, “I’ve got to have those Disney socks and underwear and PJs and T-shirt and …” Take a deep breath. Set a limit ahead of time for yourself and your children’s purchases. On our first visit when the children understood money, we gave them each $30 to spend on a big souvenir. It was helpful to have a limit in advance, and that gave them some boundaries. I still bought T-shirts, pins and a light-up necklace for myself one night, but that’s another story.


It’s expensive, so plan for the cost. One may carry in plastic water bottles and snacks, but no big coolers are allowed. This is where the meal plan offered in conjunction with staying in a Disney hotel comes in handy. The meal plan allows for “quick service” meals, like a hamburger in Fantasyland, sit-down meals and even snacks. Each meal type requires a certain number of meal points. If meal points remain toward the end of the trip, one option is to order room service for double a meal’s points. We’ve done that on our last mornings to help cheer up the sad suitcase packers who don’t want to go home. We also found we couldn’t eat enough of the meals paid for in advance, so we cut back on subsequent visits. I like the meal plan because we each could get a snack and I wouldn’t have to cringe at the price of a pretzel or latte. But I don’t like leaving unused meal points in Orlando if we’ve purchased too many meals in advance.

By the way: If you carry a bag of any type or a small cooler into a Disney park, you’ll have to go through the slower security line. If you’re staying in a Disney hotel, you can simply carry your hotel room key, with which you may charge food and items, or wear the new wristband that acts as hotel room key, admission ticket and credit card.

Finally, planning ahead makes sense when it comes to seeing the daily parades or lights or fireworks shows. Some restaurants have views of the fireworks over Cinderella’s castle or will allow guests to watch the fireworks from a balcony and return to their table for dessert afterward (we did this during dinner at the Grand Floridian Café). To celebrate a special birthday and anniversary, we booked six months in advance a 9 p.m. table at the California Grill, which is located on the top floor of the Contemporary Hotel with a view of the fireworks.

When in the Magic Kingdom before the afternoon parade, I like to stop for lunch at Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Café. I try to grab a table outside from which we can view the parade. It’s not the same view as sitting curbside on the street, but it’s more comfortable and the family can eat lunch while we wait for the parade. As soon as the parade ends, we head to the nearby Pirates of the Caribbean ride or Splash Mountain.

All of this planning and effort is quickly forgotten when the vacation is over and no one wants to go home. The smiling faces, thrills on fast rides and hugs from bigger-than-life Disney stars somehow manage to climb into the suitcases for the ride home and back to reality.

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