I feel like the world is divided into two very distinct groups: Disney People (“DP”s) and Non-Disney People (“NDP”s). You are either a DP who goes every year, has embroidered ears and loves the magic. Or you’re not. My husband and I are NDPs. Yet we took our kids to Disney’s Magic Kingdom this year. When Grandma and Grandpa put the hammer down (“We are taking your kids, you can come or not”) we knew that this was the perfect time to go. We are in the little crevice in childhood where everything is believable and magic exists, but we don’t have to do strollers and diapers and naptimes.
So, we decided to go to Disney, as NDPs.
My husband and I are just NDPs, not Disney-haters. To us, Disney is great but, to be quite honest, when we choose to spend $1,500 on a vacation (footnote: we still shelled out a lot for the vacation, it wasn’t an all-expenses paid family trip for 4 to Disney because, really, who is ever given that? We were thrilled to be gifted $400 in park entrance fees), we want to take our kids out west to ski or camp in some of the amazing national parks. Perhaps it is because we are screen-lite in our family or because we have boys and our kids never caught the Princess-bug… I don’t know why but Disney doesn’t resonate in our home. It just wouldn’t be our first choice.
We went, though, thanks to grandparents voluntolding us, and once we were in the park these NDPs had a great time. But we had to get to the park. And, through that, I learned some valuable lessons I wish a DP had told me.
I planned this whole thing alone but it was exhausting and took hours. I get why there are travel agents who specialize in all things Disney. So if you hate stress and get frustrated that you have to plan your entire vacation through an online computer system that ALWAYS GOES DOWN, go through an agent. Odds are you have a friend on Facebook that is a Disney agent. Disney is a behemoth, a confusing massive glory of tourism, that is so hard to figure out. But if you crack the system, your vacation will be infinitely more enjoyable and carefree. If you don’t have time to spend hours researching all things Disney and being in forums until midnight, just get an agent.
Of course, most DPs go annually so they have it down. Maybe just invite one of them over, give them a few glasses of wine, and hand them your iPad with your Disney account password and tell them to do what they do.
Not that I am recommending getting your friends drunk in return for favors…
Here is what we learned on our first Disney vacation that non-Disney people may want to know:
1- Serioulsy consider Fort Wilderness and the camper experience. We were so glad we chose this and I highly recommend it to any family. Having the camper with your own bathroom, shower, kitchen and beds is like Camping Lite. So even if you don’t consider your family “campers,” you can do this.
Various private companies throughout Orlando will let you book the exact camper you want in advance and once you arrive at Fort Wilderness they will deliver the camper to you and set it all up. You can go out to dinner at Disney Springs and when you get back, VOILA, camper paradise. Then, when you leave, just call and tell them you’re done and drive away.
For our family, this was a perfect choice this time. With 4 adults and 2 kids a hotel meant a suite situation or two rooms hopefully close to one another. But that adds up very quickly at Disney-area resorts, no matter what kind of reward points you have. This ended up being a better deal, even though it wasn’t the Ritz-Carlton or The Contemporary. But we weren’t in sleeping bags either. Plus, we got to bring our dog!
Sub-lessons from Fort Wilderness, though, that you should know:
- No one has campfires because they are SO STRICT on the fire bowl policy. For us, this was important because we only did one day in the park and spent the rest of the time around the campsite. No one around the area rents Disney-approved firebowls, including Disney. My parents borrowed a pit from a neighbor they brought with them, but then we had to drive all over to find wood to purchase. Because while most parks will not allow you to bring in outside wood to avoid the spread of plant diseases and contamination, Disney doesn’t sell it.
- The dining halls on site get crowded. But your site will have a grill for charcoal (which they do sell) so you can save some money here.
- The smores in the evening are not free.
- While they make it sound so easy (“the camper will just show up”) it wasn’t. The Disney agents I spoke to on the phone gave me mixed messages, the wrong information, and were generally very irritating and confusing. Some claimed my site wasn’t ready yet, some said call back, some said it wasn’t assigned, some said I couldn’t get the number because I wasn’t with a Disney preferred company. It was worth it in the end, but maddening the day of check in.
- We absolutely loved that we could watch the fireworks from the Fort Wilderness beach. No, we didn’t get to watch the low show and see Tinkerbell, but our kids ran around in the sand with glow necklaces, we didn’t have to fight crowds, we had a beer, and Fort Wilderness had piped the music in on a delay so it matched perfectly with what we were seeing. This was, by far, my favorite part of the day.
- After the fireworks display, an electric boat parade stopped in the water off the beach and performed the coolest light show, set to Disney music, just for the campground’s beach (before heading on, presumably, to other resorts on the water). It was a fun treat!
2- The Disney online system will tell you there aren’t reservations for the restaurant your party wants for a time you want but when you show up there will be one hundred bajillion tables open that never fill. We ate at T-Rex in Disney Springs (which prompted this advice) and the boys thought it was cool. Yet even though they told us the only reservation we could get was at 4:30, there were one hundred bajillion empty tables in there when we left. I guess that sometimes it ISN’T better to make reservations.
3- You will make reservations for your party through the Disney online system and they will still make you wait 15-20 minutes (not a one time occurrence).
4- Buy FastPass and talk to someone who knows something on how to use it (get that friend a second bottle of wine). I booked us all on 3 rides together, thinking that once we rode a ride and were then down to 2 of our 3 FastPass options, we would hop onto the app (see below) and book our next ride, so we’d always have three. I had NO IDEA, even after hours of research, that you can only start booking your next rides on FastPass once you’ve used ALL your rides. So if you book a FastPass ride at 9:30 at night, you are screwed. At least, that’s what the Disney agent at the in-park kiosk told us.
5- The app! Download the app and don’t worry about people glaring at you for staring at your phone during your family vacation time in the park. That Disney app is awesome and a brilliant use of technology.
6- Bring a picnic lunch into the park, but shell out the dough for dinner. We made reservations, early of course because of the online system, at the Crystal Palace for Winnie the Pooh dinner and it was so wonderful! The characters were a perfect fit for my boys (we’ve been reading the Winnie the Pooh books and listened to them on Audible) and the food on the buffet was very good. But for lunch, we were fighting crowds for overpriced food and I wished we had kept it simpler and easier during our high-ride time.
So there you go, my honest tips as a NDP. While this trip was certainly fun, it was one of the hardest to plan. But not planned, it could be a special disaster. A Disney trip is an investment, so you have to treat it as such.
And before you DPs leave comments telling me what I did wrong, please understand that we ended up having a great time in the Kingdom. Disney has created a whole world, litter-free and sparkling, where characters come to life. It is perfect for little people and shall be something our family always remembers, all the irriating and the wonderful.
I wish all my family vacations had a camper and an app.
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