“I feel bad.”
My wife, a high school teacher, saw children wilting in Florida’s intense June heat; the smiles beneath their plastic silver crowns slowly fading into sweaty, melted frowns.
“This is wrong,” she insisted.
“No,” I answered, as we swiftly passed the families waiting in an endless standby line next to us. “This is why I stayed up all night.”
We were walking with my great aunt and daughter down an empty rope-lined pathway to to Frozen Ever After, Epcot’s newest jewel and tribute to the 2013 film Frozen. Across the divide in the other line were fathers, mothers, grandparents and children—most were girls dressed in their best Elsa costume. It was 91 degrees at 10 a.m. on that June day, and the standby line was already a 120-minute wait (it would crest at three hours). Water jugs were strategically placed along the winding entryway; at the time, Disney’s charitable gesture for Arendelle’s waiting visitors made me think about the groups in Arizona that leave water jugs in the desert for migrants on the border.
We had a FastPass+ for this ride, which was obtained by my staying up for hours on the first night Disney allowed bookings for the attraction. (More on the FastPlus+ insanity later.) There was no way I was getting out of our weeklong trip without taking my six-year-old Elsa acolyte to Frozen Ever After, and a little lost sleep was the trade off for not wasting a quarter of a day sweating my ass off in line. We were going to do this.
It took 16 minutes from the time we entered the line to when we exited the ride—the “ride” itself, by the way, was mostly a combination of animatronics, Pixar animation and Adele Dazeem’s voice, consumed from the inside of a log flume (that Disney retrofitted the former Maelstrom ride at Norway). On our way out, I saw one of the families we had passed on the way in. Their child was sweaty, irritable and unhappy. So were her parents. The line had moved about 10 feet.
My daughter, on the other hand, was giggling with glee.
Such is the Disney caste system. Either plan ahead and book popular rides so that you’re always ahead of the line, or stand in line with the peasant class. Choose to stay at hotels with kickass pools and interactive alligator experiences, or the ones that resemble motor lodge-style “value” resorts. Your kids won’t notice a difference while they’re there, of course. The hotel room is just somewhere they crash and burn from exhaustive days in the parks. A line is always a line. For parents, however, it makes all the difference.
This is how a modern day trip to Walt Disney World goes. The destination was once treated as a sort of rite of passage for middle-class American children east of the Great Plains—somewhere mixed in with nursery school graduations, first days of kindergarten, and learning to read was the trip to see Cinderella’s Castle for the first time. Personally, this was my seventh trek to the parks since 1981—thanks to a very generous aunt who treated her niece and nephews like the children she never had—but the first time with a child of my own. And it’s safe to say that, as an adult, I see the Great American Family Vacation to Disney World—like much of my youth—through a more cynical lens. The magic has not necessarily faded, but it’s not exactly affordable or anyone’s ideal vacation spot. This is especially true when considering the fine line that you walk with your children on this magical trip that they’ll barely remember—the line that separates their sheer joy from homicidal tantrums.
Our seven days was like the song from “It’s A Small World.” It was a trip of laughter, a trip of tears (for my six-year-old). A trip that began with hope and ended with blood blisters on my feet from poor footwear choices. So here’s what I’ll advise from the start—learn from my mistakes, and pack sneakers. And be acutely aware of just how much this costs. It’s an investment on par with the down payment on a house. As a parent, a Disney vacation is preventing financial insolvency and accepting that you will bleed money like a leaky aorta. Prepping in advance helps... a little.
When to go:
Peak periods at the Disney parks mean crowd size and prices hit their absolute highest points. Not coincidentally, these peaks coincide with school breaks—Christmas, Easter and summer vacation. It’s up to you to weigh the cost/benefit for your family. As a Northeastern family where one parent is a teacher, our travel calendar is restricted. So, we traveled in late June. This meant sweating like I have never sweat before. Every family photo from our trip includes my bloated, swollen body sweating through my shirt. Humidity rendered the air clam chowder thick and it felt like I sweat out water as quickly as I drank it.
Generally, it makes the most sense to visit in March, September or October, when everything is cheapest and the weather is fairer. But, this means pulling kids out of school, and nothing drives my wife crazier than a family that pulls their kid out during the middle of the year to go on vacation.
The right age:
Walk through the parks and you will see newborns and infants, toddlers and school-aged children. The baby thing confused the shit out of me. Why the fuck would a parent willingly lug an infant through the park? Are they so fucking desperate for family photos in settings no one else has? Do they enjoy not sleeping so much they want to not sleep while spending thousands of dollars on vacation?
One also has to balance the physical stress of the trip. The Magic Kingdom is 107 acres and a lot of walking. Epcot is another 300, and the Animal Kingdom park is closer to 500. You can rent a stroller, but you jettison them before getting in line at each ride’s, so they have to walk anyways—and my daughter hated her stroller soon after she turned 3 years old. The oppressive heat and humidity combined with extensive walking nearly led to a tantrum or two from me, a fully grown adult. Child meltdowns were frequent, visible and audible.
So, when is the right age? Ages 4 to 6 seem like the sweet spot for a first visit. They are used to the length of a school day, the stroller is a thing of the past and they possess the imagination and endurance to handle the Disney Magic.
Budgeting for your vacation:
Looking for value at Disney World is like trying to beat the house at a casino. My wife and I attempted to get our money’s’ worth in crab legs from the seafood buffet at the Beach Club Resort ($60 per person), but we lost $35 on our child who ate nothing and moped through dinner because it was cutting into her pool time. As my friend Phil said, Disney operates on an experience economy and the currency is Magic—you might pull something if you cringe too hard at the exchange rate.
That said, you don’t have to liquidate your 401(k) to afford the trip. Start with what’s important to you. If luxury tops your list, by all means, go for it. If you would rather have a comfortable room with decent in-hotel dining and a good pool, you have plenty of options. To better illustrate this, let’s plan a hypothetical five-day/four-night trip for a hypothetical family of four (two parents, two kids) at a moderately-priced hotel with a meal plan. And, just for fun, let’s do it during the week following Easter when your kids have a school break.
- Flights: Travel costs will vary depending on where you’re flying in from, but we managed this with roundtrip flights from the Northeast at around $1,800. Every airline services Orlando International Airport, including Southwest, so you may beat this number.
- Hotel: You can choose from luxury resorts like the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa or Polynesian Village Resort for $400 to $1,400 per night, moderate-level hotels like Caribbean Beach or Coronado Springs ($150 to $1,000 per night), or the All-Star Movies or Pop Century resorts ($100 to $200 per night). These are the “value” resorts, an ironic moniker used liberally throughout the complex, but difficult to actually find. What made our $400 per night room at the Beach Club Resort better than a $100 per night room at the All-Star Sports resort? A better selection of restaurants and relatively close access to the parks, but on average you can do this at $1,166 ($259 per night, including tax) at the Caribbean Beach resort, complete with an in-room coffeemaker and fridge.
- Park Tickets: $1,347 gets two adults and two children into only one park per day, but you can always leave and go back. Want to do two parks in a day? The Park Hopper option is an additional $294.
- Meal Plan: If you’re going to eat at Disney, the mid-range plan that gets you one fast food and one sit-down meal, and two snacks per day costs $733 for four. It also includes that refillable mug.
- Transportation: The free (really!) Disney Magic Express saves you $75 in cab fare and you can skip baggage claim and go straight to the shuttle. This service picks up your bags and takes them to the room for you. On the way out of town, you check your bag and grab your boarding pass at the hotel and that’s that.
- Swag: Nearly every ride dumps into a gift shop and some of those snack and quick service options take place in the hotel’s sundry shop. If you’re the type to buy stuff as you go, budget in about $200 for these.
- Booze: Let’s say around $200, based on one drink per adult, per day. Totally optional, but a strong margarita can fix most everything.
- Incidentals: Factor in about $100. It’s $13 for a small sprayable sunscreen and $4 for a travel tube of toothpaste. Your deodorant will inevitably run out or the kid will forget to pack underwear.
- A very special tea party: My aunt generously treated my daughter, the only girl in her generation of nieces and nephews, to the Perfectly Princess Tea at the Grand Floridian Resort. Here, she would enjoy a tea party with two dozen other children in the company of Princess Aurora, take part in a reenactment of Sleeping Beauty’s story, learn to walk like a princess, and receive a massive swag bag including a 10-inch Aurora doll. The 90-minute experience cost $208 for my kid and another $80 each for my aunt and wife. For coffee, tea, milk, finger sandwiches and swag. And the Disney Magic. However, for me, this was free.
TOTAL AVERAGE COST: $5,546
Naturally, you can increase that number by choosing a better view or hotel, or the Park Hopper option. For an extra $400 you can jump to the premium dining plan. You can also shave $200 off the meal plan and go all fast food. But, you will not get out of the swag.
We booked everything directly through the Disney website and its customer service department went out of their way to makes things as easy as possible. That said, you may have a travel agent that you trust and that’s fine too. Your company, trade union, bank, auto club, civic organization, and/or coven may also offer discounts as well. Disney does well by active military families with an expansive discount program and a private, miltary-owned resort is open to active duty and retired personnel.
Can you get around the bloodletting? Sure. Skip the meal plans, but buy the refillable cup at $17 in any gift shop. At $3 for a 20 oz. bottle of Coca-Cola, you make your money back quickly. Then, use one of the grocery delivery services to order bottled water, cereal, milk, deli meat, bread, snacks, beer and other stuff. Even with the delivery fees, you still come out ahead.
We shipped a few things down as well, like refillable water bottles, sunscreen, toiletries and nonperishable food (snacks, Clif bars, etc.). Ground shipping services and a tip for the valet still save money in the long run.
Making the Most of Disney World
Disney World has four major attractions: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom. That’s four parks and around four to five days to see them in. Here’s how we’ll do it.
Navigating the parks:
Getting around the parks requires a strategy that focuses on what your kid(s) wants to see and accepts that you will make a sacrifice or two. We never made it to Hollywood Studios, so I never did get my picture taken with Chewbacca and my daughter never saw the Disney Junior stage show with Sofia the First. Each time we offered Hollywood Studios to her, she declined. Life goes on. This trip should be about them, not you.
Having been previously, Hollywood Studios can be conquered in less than a day. The Muppets are awesome, as is the Tower of Terror. It’s worth buying at the Park Hopper option for one day (you book this online or at the hotel concierge desk) so you don’t waste an entire day there. Pair it together with a second day at the Magic Kingdom, which is large enough where you cannot cover everything in one day. Plus, your kid will want to do at least one ride each time you visit (or maybe Under The Sea - Journey of the Little Mermaid five times). Heat kept us from spending more than a half-day at Animal Kingdom. This expansive park is divided into regions—Africa, Asia, DinoLand and Discovery Island — and an animal habitat on par with San Diego Zoo or the Smithsonian National Zoo.
Epcot is a tough one because, on its face, it’s boring for kids. Walt Disney’s Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow opened in 1982 and looks it was built in the mid-1970s. Test Track and Soarin’ add modernity and The Seas with Nemo and Friends get the benefit of Nemo, Dory, et al. The World Showcase was probably pretty cool in the 1980s, but it seems more like an excuse to get boozy and eat a lot.
Every park has its magnet attraction exclusive to that park. Epcot has Frozen Ever After, and the only spot where you can meet Anna and Elsa in the parks. Hollywood Studios has all of the Star Wars attractions. Animal Kingdom has a fucking African savannah. The Magic Kingdom is, well, the Magic Kingdom. Your job as parent is to prioritize, plan and book those FastPass+ reservations.
For reference, here’s what you’re working with. It’s huge:
The FastPass+ is your best friend:
FastPass+ is Disney’s advance reservation system for rides, offering Type A moms and dads the opportunity to hyper-plan your trip and/or skip the line at Disney World’s most popular attractions. It’s such a batshit crazy system, in fact, that there are entire websites devoted to shedding light on FastPass+ strategy. One site even takes a sabermetric-like approach. It is your friend.
Thirty days before your trip starts (60 days if you are staying in a Disney resort), you can reserve up to three rides in one park per day. Each reservation is good for a one-hour window. Book for 10 a.m., show up at 10:59 a.m. and bypass the proletariat. It’s particularly helpful on Epcot rides like Frozen Ever After and Soarin’, Hollywood Studios’ Rock ‘N’ Roller Coaster (featuring music from something called Aerosmith), and Magic Kingdom rides like Space Mountain, Splash Mountain and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Not every ride rates FastPass+ status; you do not need to plan ahead to see the Carousel of Progress or Hall of Presidents.
Disney’s less than reliable app—it was offline for multiple hours on multiple occasions during our trip—allows guests to pickup and drop FastPass+ reservations on the fly. (Once you hit your limit, you can visit one of the kiosks in the park to make additional reservations.) We used FastPass to meet princesses, bypass an oppressively hot standby line for the Kilmanjaro Safari in Animal Kingdom and, yes, ride Frozen Ever After.
The unpredictability of traveling with children notwithstanding, developing a park plan and getting these things on your itinerary is a good idea.
Eating inside of the parks:
Dining options at Disney World fall into categories of quick service, fast casual, sit-down casual, buffet and fine dining. Think of quick service like a fast food establishment. A lunch of burgers, fries and bottles of water for my wife and I, plus a chocolate milk for the kid (more about her dining situation in a bit) would easily top the $30 mark.
Sit-down casual prices are more in line with reality—$15 to $20 a head before drinks—as are the fine dining establishments. Think of the buffets as Las Vegas style (more towards the Bellagio or Wynn and less like The Fremont).
Three quick service meals for three people means you’re dropping about $100 daily on food. Enter Disney’s Dining Plans. For a daily cost of $45 per adult and $19 for each kid, you get two quick service meals, a snack and that mug that can be refilled from any Coca-Cola fountain on the grounds (sometimes Disney Magic comes with a side of Type II diabetes). Add $20 per adult ($4 per kid) and swap one of those fast food meals out for a sit-down.
Another thing to remember is that you’ll be walking around in the heat all day, no matter what you eat. While a burger may give you the most bang for your buck—carrying around a stomach full of hot beef on a sweltering day in the park is nauseating. Even then, finding something small or light for lunch, say a ubiquitous turkey club sandwich, was out of reach.
I mentioned this to a cashier at Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe in Tomorrowland, as I surveyed my options there. She explained that people on the dining plans expect a filling meal every time they eat, regardless of whether they finish it. It’s about perceived value, not necessarily actual value. People spend a lot of money so they expect a lot of food, so those of us paying cash at each meal and looking for a turkey sandwich are, essentially, shit out of luck (my words, not her’s). So really consider carrying around some snacks and eating a good breakfast before you head out.
I mentioned that my daughter is a picky eater earlier, and that’s not because she’s a brat, but because she can’t eat some of the most basic kids foods. What’s great is that Disney World is very good about accommodating specific needs your family may have. (The park, for example, is very wheelchair accessible.)
For example, traveling with a child with severe allergies:
Cynicism aside, Disney World goes out of its way to cater to people of all ages with food allergies. Yes, you need to prepare as you would for any other trip, but park restaurants make it easier. Special menus call out what is safe for people with nut, dairy, soy, seafood or gluten issues. Chefs will come table-side at sit-down restaurants to review menus or walk around the buffet to show you what is safe. It’s a remarkable gesture given how busy these spots can be at mealtime.
When making a reservation or checking in with a hostess or stepping up to the counter to order, alert the staff to the allergy, and they’ll take it straight to the kitchen. In our case, my daughter has Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder triggered by the consumption of gluten. Every time we sat down at a restaurant, we were greeted by a chef to review our options. At our “character breakfast,” the head chef came out to offer yogurt directly from the container in the cooler if it would make my wife and I feel safer about cross contamination. At the end of our first dinner on the grounds, the chef personally delivered my daughter two gluten-free chocolate chip cookies, concerned about gluten contamination with the ice cream.
One of the most remarkable gestures of kindness and understanding from the staff had nothing to do with diet. It was a staff member offering a mother of an agitated autistic child a quiet space for both of them to sit. This wasn’t “get this out of our lobby” or “control your child,” but a compassionate assist. To that end, Disney World has a lot of noise, lights and other stimuli, and parents should prepare accordingly. The resort offers numerous services for people with disabilities with special emphasis on the autism spectrum.
A note about footwear:
Keen sandals have never failed me. I have walked New York, San Francisco and Washington D.C. in Keen footwear and never had a problem. However, after three days in the parks, I had developed three massive blisters on my feet from walking around in my go-to shoes, one of which was loaded with blood. By the end of our trip, I spent my mornings penguin walking around the hotel room waiting for the pain to become manageable. In hindsight, sneakers would have been a much wiser selection. Your shoe selection might be the most important decision in your vacation plan. Bring sneakers.
Remember to keep your sanity:
My wife and I planned a signal for when one of us needed a break from the kids or the chaos—the announcement that one of us was “going out to look for fairy dust” meant that we would be in the bar (i.e. where the grown-ups are) for a little while. We never ended up breaking it out, though—we just drank in front of the kid, just like at home. Sanity is in the eye of the one questioning it, and a little rest can go a long way for everyone, so make sure you get it. We tried to build a half-day of downtime in for every half-day in the park. It didn’t matter if our daughter was in the pool or watching cartoons, as long as she was off her feet. Sometimes, this meant a nap or reading for my wife or me. Other times, it meant us playing in the pool with her.
Did our daughter cry? Damn right she did. She had one epic meltdown late in the trip and a few moments of abject crankiness, but given the heat and physical exertion, I was only in marginally better shape than her on some days. This is why resting your feet and brain will make everything easier on everyone.
Most importantly, please do not look at the hotel bill until you unpack at home. Don’t do it. Don’t. Do. It. Disney’s experience economy is a lot like shopping at Sam’s Club or Costco—you might be getting “value,” but it does not necessarily come cheap. (The reverse is also true.) Can you put a price tag on memories? Of course you can, but when Princess Anna hugs your kid and she melts into a puddle of six-year-old goo, you’ll probably forget you just dropped $32 for entry to go to this “character breakfast,” wherein no one even ate.
But hey, that’s the price you pay for some of that famous Disney Magic.