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Do Disney Your Way

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When we started planning our first trip to Walt Disney World with our 4-year-old son, we envisioned his excited face as he met Mickey Mouse for the first time; his thrill at seeing his hero, Buzz Lightyear, in three dimensions on a heart-pounding ride; and his awe at the fireworks over Cinderella Castle. Little did we imagine that his very favorite thing about Disney World would be our hotel pool!

Of course, at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club, the pool is no standard rectangle but a virtual water park that kept our son entertained for hours splashing on the deck of a pirate ship, floating on an inner tube along a sand-bottomed lagoon, and feeling comfortable enough to swim underwater for the first time. For my husband and me, the trip's biggest surprise was rediscovering what a pleasure it is to eat a good meal without feeling on edge about our young son's behavior, even in the fanciest of Disney's family-friendly restaurants. And for my mother-in-law, who brought us on this trip, the highlight was not only being clutched tight by her grandson on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride but also the varied atmosphere at each of the theme parks and resorts we visited. The fact is, Disney caters to families like few other places on earth.

As Disney World celebrates the 100th anniversary of Walt Disney's birth, Child decided to take a fresh look at the world's top vacation destination by consulting an army of specialists: the magazine's readers and Disney-with-kids veterans. Here, our roundup of insider secrets and smart strategies from parents who've been there and survived -- or, like us, had a far better time than they imagined.

Why it's Worth it to Stay at a Disney Resort
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Ease of travel: If you plan to visit just the Disney parks, you won't even need a rental car. The most convenient resorts to the Magic Kingdom (the Contemporary, Grand Floridian, and Polynesian) are located at monorail stops, but all Disney transportation gets you closer to the Kingdom than driving or using non-Disney shuttles. Disney transportation is free, and so is parking if you stay at a Disney resort. And if you buy four-day Park Hopper passes, which allow you to visit more than one of the four parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios, and Disney's Animal Kingdom), you'll get around more quickly.

Priority meal seating: Even before you arrive, you can make reservations for all Disney World restaurants with one call: 407-WDW-DINE.

Great themes: From exotic animals on the grounds of the Animal Kingdom Lodge to the larger-than-life icons at the All-Star resorts, the Disney hotels are often as much a part of the magic as the theme parks themselves.

Why You Might Want to Stay at a Non-Disney Resort or Condo

With more than 100,000 hotel rooms in the Orlando area, it's definitely a buyer's market. Many families like the larger accommodations offered at hotels like the Holiday Inn Family Suites or the Embassy Suites or a time-share condo like the well-regarded Vistana Resort, all conveniently located and often much less expensive than similarly sized rooms in Disney hotels. Having one or more separate bedrooms allows kids to nap or go to sleep early and adults to stay up later. The accommodations also usually include kitchenettes, making it easier to have breakfast or other meals "at home" and pack a sandwich or snacks for the park. Furthermore, they can be more convenient if you're planning to visit Universal Studios, Sea World, and other non-Disney attractions.

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  • If you go to Disney World in the summer, late August is best, but fall and spring are ideal times to visit, both weather-wise and for smaller crowds. December (pre-Christmas), January, and early February can be cool, but they're relatively uncrowded.
  • Take advantage of FastPass. This amazing (and free)convenience, now available on 24 rides, lets you get a timed ticket for the most popular rides, usually for an hour or two later. Arrive at your scheduled time, and you breeze in past the line. You can't hold more than one FastPass at a time, so it's worth checking out how long the delays are in case another ride might be available more quickly.
  • Check the ride boards at the parks for up-to-the-minute information on what's crowded and what's not, and head for any unexpectedly short lines. One Child reader set a 15-minute limit for standing in line with a toddler.
  • Go left. It sounds simple, but many people swear the majority of the herd tends to head right, both in the parks and in line.

  • To get a prime seat for the nightly parades and fireworks without waiting forever, schedule a meal in the right place at the right time. "We had a character dinner at the Liberty Tavern, then came outside and were well-positioned to see the nighttime parade," says one mom. Book a dinner at the lovely California Grill on the top floor of the Contemporary Resort for a fantastic fireworks view or at Narcoossee's at the Grand Floridian for the Electrical Water Pageant. At Epcot, diners at the Rose & Crown have a front-row seat for the IllumiNations show. And at Disney-MGM Studios, if you eat dinner at the 50's Prime Time Caf?, Brown Derby, Mama Melrose's, or Hollywood & Vine, you can get reserved seats at the nightly Fantasmic! show.
  • If you have a grandparent along who can't walk well, rent a wheelchair (available at all parks). You'll get priority seating at parades and faster boarding on most rides.

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Rest in the afternoon. Spend the morning at one park, then head back to the hotel for a nap and a swim. After that, depending on your group's stamina, you can go back to the same or a different park for less-crowded late afternoon rides, dinner, or evening parades and shows.(Park Hopper passes and conveniently located hotels are a boon.)

Go with the flow. While many people advocate getting to the parks early to beat the crowds, you have to go with your own family's rhythms: "We let the kids sleep late to recover from the night before, so they wouldn't be tired and cranky," says one parent. Some young kids can rally for the fireworks and parades; others simply can't last that long, and it's not worth pushing them. "I regularly reminded myself that this trip was for my son," another mom says. "If he was afraid of a ride, we didn't go on it. When he'd had enough, we left."

Give kids a choice. If children are old enough to have preferences, let each family member pick two or three priorities in each park and try to accommodate those. Keep in mind that you can't do everything in one trip.

Pack diversions. Hand-held electronic games, audio books, and mini tape recorders help stave off boredom. Give each child a free map of the parks and a marker to circle the rides and attractions you've visited.

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If you or your children have a special interest, it can be fun to indulge it at Disney.

  • Captain the monorail. If you're near the front of the monorail at a Disney resort and it's not too crowded, ask if you can ride up front with the driver (for parties of four or less) for a great view.
  • If you're a certified scuba diver, you can actually dive in the Living Seas aquarium at Epcot -- and your family can watch you from a table at the Coral Reef restaurant! It's not inexpensive (about $150 for a three-hour tour including a 30-minute dive). For the same price, you can also learn about and interact with dolphins in the aquarium in a 3 1/2-hour tour.
  • At the Grand Floridian, children can go on a treasure-hunt pirate cruise in the Seven Seas Lagoon or make cupcakes and have tea and storytime with Alice in Wonderland at 1900 Park Fare. (Call 407-WDW-DINE to reserve.) Daughters can even tag along with their moms to enjoy a mini manicure or facial at the Spa and Health Club (407-824-2332).
  • Great Adventures in Cooking lets junior chefs make a dessert (themed to a story), then serve it to guests in this two-hour cooking class.
  • Gather round the campfire near the Meadow Trading Post at Fort Wilderness campground and roast marshmallows, sing along with Chip and Dale, and watch a movie.
  • Learn to surf at Typhoon Lagoon before the water park opens. The 2 1/2-hour class is open to Disney guests ages 8 and older for $125 (407-939-SURF).
  • Try parasailing at the Contemporary resort.
  • Go horseback riding (ages 9 and up; younger kids can enjoy a pony ride), or go on a hayride at Fort Wilderness.
  • Play miniature golf at Fantasia Gardens or Winter Summerland (with Santa and his elves!), or try your football skills at the NFL Experience in Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex.
  • If your kids love to know how things work or have a passion, say, for trains or animals, you can sign up for a Backstage Magic Tour (407-939-8687).

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Copyright © 2002. Reprinted with permission from the June/July 2002 issue of Child magazine.