My boyfriend and I recently got back from a ten-day trip to “The Happiest Place on Earth,” Walt Disney World. Only for us, despite our love of all things Mickey, well, it was a little miserable. The crowds, overpriced souvenirs and food, all the walking around in the sweltering humidity…we knew going into it that it wouldn’t exactly be the most relaxing vacation for two twentysomethings from the Northwest.
Just look at us: hot, tired, forcing smiles in this selfie.
And we took this trip without children.
Bless the brave souls who take a Disney vacation with the little ones in tow.
I was amazed when I saw a large group in matching family reunion shirts, seemingly keeping everyone from Grandpa to baby occupied (How were they keeping track of everyone, let alone having a good time?!). When I got on the bus to our hotel one night, I was unfazed to hear a toddler crying and her unapologetic guardian tell the other passengers “she’s just going to do this for a while.” Yes, I understood. It had been a long day for all of us.
Our vacation wasn’t exactly what we had expected. There are a bunch of reasons for that, among them the fact I’d never been to Florida before (read: the time zone and temperature changes affected us) and that we had planned our Disney World trip while at Disneyland in 2015. Maybe we were just Disney’d out.
Still, having recently been to both parks, this got me wondering how families can set themselves up for success with a theme park visit. I’m not a parent, so I’m not offering parenting advice. Instead, here are some money- and time-saving tips I’ve gleaned that should help keep “The Happiest Place on Earth” happy.
Before your trip
- Do your research. Figure out the differences between the parks. Are you up for a long flight and possible layover? Are you, like I was, really hoping to meet Pocahontas? Head to Florida, because you won’t likely find her at Disneyland. While there, visit the water parks, tour the world in Epcot, ride Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster if you’re a thrill-seeker. There’s a lot to do and see at either Disney World or Disneyland, but each park offers a slightly different list of character meet-and-greets and rides. Start asking what people want to do so you can prioritize some activities. Take into consideration the month you are planning to travel, as pricing, crowds and weather can vary. Download the Disney Parks app. Then figure out what Fast Passes are and make use of them. It will save a lot of frustration if you know in advance that you can get a seat for the Frozen sing-along or that your toddler is too short for a ride.
- Bring some souvenirs with you. “But you go on the vacation to get the souvenirs,” you say. I hear you. I agree. I thought that too, until I got there and saw that the biggest differences between some of the park souvenirs and the things I had seen at Walmart, Dollar Tree and even Goodwill was the price tag and the characters available. As you plan for your vacation, take a peek online at the Disney Store website and see what’s for sale. While the parks have more items than the website (and more than you can imagine), you may still get there and be disappointed in the very limited Lion King selection. You may never even find the character you really want in the sea of Annas and Elsas — and if it’s Frozen you’re after, you probably already know where to find it (it’s in your child’s toy chest and their closet and it may even be on the label of your canned food). Save yourself the hassle of scouring every store in the parks– cutting into your precious character meet-and-greets and rides – and find a Simba toy before you leave. Not only will you likely save time and money, you’ve already factored in space in the suitcase for it. I guarantee you’ll still buy other things in the park, but if you’ve already realized how much your family owns that’s emblazoned in Disney branding, you may be less likely to go overboard when you’re all overwhelmed with merchandise. If nothing else, you may be able to surprise your kid with his very own new Mickey stuffed animal as you approach the park, before he even catches wind of all the things he could beg for later.
Other useful souvenirs worth getting ahead of time: grab (Disney-themed) notebooks for character signatures at the dollar store, a few graphic tees on clearance as you browse the big-box stores and keep your eyes out for cheap Halloween costumes and accessories if your kids want to dress up as princesses to meet Cinderella.
- Look up the forecast. Buy weather appropriate accessories before you go. Buying a can of sunscreen in the park may not be the souvenir you want. Then again, neither is a bad sunburn.
During your trip
- Bring snacks and beverages into the park. We very easily spent more than $30 on bottled water alone on one day of our Disneyland trip. On our way out of the park that night, we stopped by a drugstore and bought a case of bottled water for $5. It lasted the rest of our trip. We learned our lesson for Disney World. You don’t have to throw out food or drinks when you enter the park. Save yourself from waiting in food lines, spending $3.50 or more on each drink and getting dehydrated from all the walking.
- Pack a change of clothes and/or a towel. You rode Splash Mountain and now you are soaking wet. Sure, it’s part of the fun. But being in humidity in public when none of your clothing is drying out? Not fun. There’s so much walking, you don’t want to be doing it on squishy shoes. Being able to change clothes or wring them out if they get too wet, if the weather changes quickly or if something is spilled or soiled will make you (or the person it happened to) happier in the moment and possibly save you from bad photos, complaining, a mess or an unexpected trip back to the hotel. And, if a water park or swimming is on your itinerary, you just saved yourself the cost of a towel rental.
- Don’t rush. There is a lot to see and do; that’s why you prioritized some of it before you left. If you know you want a family photo with Mickey and Minnie, make time for it instead of rushing to Space Mountain again and again. Allow yourself downtime. We woke up not feeling great one morning, and instead of forcing ourselves into the parks, we took a nap and tried again later. Make sure you and everyone you’re traveling with has opportunities to rest.
- Take lots of photos of everything. Your food, the hotel, the rides, the stores, your family: Disney is in the details.
After your trip
- Be thankful. I couldn’t believe how thankful I was to get home and sleep in my own bed, to buy groceries instead of another meal out, to wash all of my clothes. I was thankful for my coworkers who covered my workload and our friend who picked us up from the bus station. But I was also really thankful for the trip—for being able to see a new part of the country and spend time with my boyfriend and have new stories and photos to share when I got back. Enjoy the memories you’ve made. Don’t waste time wishing you’d done something else – you were at Disney! If something worked well, remember it for next time. If something didn’t work out, be thankful each vacation will be a different experience!
What do you wish you’d known before you went on a Disney vacation?
Jessica Trondsen is a copy editor at The Wenatchee World. She loves dogs, Goodwill and Disney, as evidenced on her Instagram.