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An Insider's Guide to Disney World

Little boys wearing Mickey ears

Courtesy of Walt Disney World

There are so many ticket options -- from single admission to a park-hopper pass -- that it can be confusing to sort them out at the kiosks on your way in. Getting tickets online (disneyworld.com) before you go will save time and sanity.

Know height requirements. There's nothing more disappointing than talking up a ride to your kids and then finding out that they're too short to go on it. All the info is on the Disney Web site (disneyworld.com).

Visit during the off-season. School breaks and holidays are the busiest -- and priciest -- times to see the parks. September and October are usually the slowest months.

Do it in reverse. Avoid crowds by heading to the back of the park first and then working your way forward. Also, go on the most popular rides at lunchtime or when others are watching the parade.

Sign up for a free Magicard. You can sign up at orlandoinfo.com to get discounts on tickets, meals, shopping, and more in Orlando. It's especially good for deals at non-Disney hotels near the parks: You can get up to 30 or 40 percent off some room rates. Just make sure the hotels have free shuttles to Disney. Also, check to see whether you're eligible for discounts, like those for members of AAA or the military.

-- Danielle Courtenay, spokesperson for the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau

If you can't wait until the off-season, plan your trip for the first two weeks in June or the last two in August. This is the least crowded time during the warm-weather months.

Call the hotel directly, and ask about any discounts or special offers available. Use the local number and not the "800" reservation system: You can sometimes get a better deal this way, especially on last-minute bookings.

Stay for four nights and five days, at least. This is enough time to see all the parks and still have some downtime by the pool so you won't feel like you need a vacation when you get home.

Choose a Disney resort if possible. This makes it really convenient for families to go back and forth from the hotel to the parks. Even if you're on a budget, there's usually only a $20-a-day difference between Disney's value properties (Pop Century and the All-Star resorts) and an off-site hotel, where you'd probably have to spend that much on transportation and parking.

See it from the top. For an amazing view of the Magic Kingdom's fireworks, make a reservation (407-939-3463) at the California Grill, which is located on top of Disney's Contemporary Resort, for 30 minutes before the start of the show. Your kids will be blown away by the display -- and you won't have to fight the crowds inside the park.

-- Kim Wright Wiley, author of the Walt Disney World with Kids travel guides

Plug your kids' ages and what they want to do into the Web site (disneyworld.com) and get a customized plan of action. This way, you're not constantly running from one end of the park to the other.

Use a rider-switch pass. It's a common problem: You, your husband, and your older child want to go on a roller coaster, but someone has to stay behind with the baby. Now Mom and the big kid can go first and request a rider-switch pass from one of the employees when they're about to get on. After they're done, Dad can skip the line with the pass.

Meet Mickey Later in the Day. The characters hang out in front of the Magic Kingdom when the park opens, so lots of people line up for autographs or snapshots. Don't waste your time: Cinderella and all her Disney friends will be in the park all day, and you'll have easier access to them later.

Eat right. If you're at the parks, make sure you grab lunch early -- between 11 and 11:30 a.m. The restaurants never really empty out after that, though the lines do get a little better after 2 p.m. Around town, make lunch your big meal for the day. Rates are usually a lot cheaper than at dinnertime, and it's easier for families to get a table.

Bring snacks and bottled water. They run about a whopping $2.50 a pop in the parks. There are plenty of fountains, but many kids (and adults) don't like the taste of the Florida water, which is a bit sulfuric.

Take a midday break. The crowds thin out starting around 6:30 p.m., so it's a good idea to go back to your room for an hour or two in the afternoon and let the kids nap or just recuperate before heading back.

-- Reese Johnson, a senior electrical designer at Disney

Seats at popular events like the character breakfasts and teas fill up quickly, so you need to make reservations way in advance. You can do so up to 180 days ahead of time (407-939-3463).

Ask about the Magical Express. No one likes waiting for luggage at the airport, and if you're staying at one of the Disney resorts, you don't have to. Hop on the free hotel shuttle when you arrive, and Disney will send your bags to the resort for you. Make sure you pack whatever you need right away in your carry-on -- your bags don't arrive immediately.

Don't lug around your souvenirs. If you're a guest at a Disney resort, don't bother hauling your souvenirs around all day. The shop will send them to your resort at no charge.

Take some "couple time." Disney has trained babysitters for hire ($14 per hour for the first child, $2 for additional kids; 407-828-0920). They don't just "sit," either -- they go to your room and bring toys and games. Some of the resorts also have kids' clubs at night ($11 per hour).

-- Denny Fryman, a Disney Club concierge host

When you ride the monorail, try to sit in the head car with the driver so you'll get a great view. Young passengers also receive an official copilot's license in the front cab.

Go on a boat ride. These free ferryboats go to the Magic Kingdom from several resorts and don't take any longer than the monorail. Plus, they're less crowded and more relaxing.

Take advantage of the Extra Magic Hours. Each day a certain park will open early and stay open later for guests of the Disney resorts.

-- David Gilmore, monorail manager

(Or just bring your own from home.) Kids love getting the characters to sign them. Don't forget a pen -- the characters don't carry them.

Reserve a stroller for your entire visit. You get a discount this way and don't have to wait in line each morning if you show your stroller receipt. And do something to distinguish yours from all the other identical ones, like tie a ribbon on it.

Visit a baby-care center. It's a calm place to take your baby to change or nurse her or just to get her out of the sun. It also sells diapers, wipes, and baby food in case you run out. First Aid is next door, where you can get bandages, cold medicine, and other emergency supplies. The centers are at different spots in each park, so check the maps.

Make sure your child has your cell-phone number in his pocket or on a tag in the back of his shirt. When kids get lost in the parks, they're usually too scared to talk to security or just can't remember their info.

-- M. J. Jensen, souvenir-shop worker

Disney cruise

Courtesy of Walt Disney World

Let's get real here: Except for a few weeks in the off-season, Disney can be woefully overcrowded. That's why our insider's guide has a ton of smart strategies for navigating the parks. But there's another way to experience the magic of Disney that doesn't include waiting in long lines and schlepping miles to get an autograph from Mickey. It's called a cruise -- and I recommend it.

Our family booked a three-night cruise to the Bahamas on the Disney Wonder. When we arrived at the ship, the party was already in full swing. There was music and dancing and dozens of our favorite characters giving out big hugs. My 5-year-old and 8-year-old immediately rushed the stage to join hundreds of other kids getting their groove on. Normally, the paranoid mother in me would have run right after them. But I didn't. They were having a ball, and I knew they were safe in the hands of Disney. We were shocked and awed.

And those two words pretty much sum up the whole fabulous vacation. We were shocked that our luxurious little cabin, with its twin bunks and queen-size bed, could accommodate our family so comfortably. We were awed by the quality of the food and service at the themed restaurants. We were shocked that our girls would go to the kids' clubs without a fuss. We were awed that we could relax guilt-free at the adults-only pool and spa. We were shocked that Disney could create its own island paradise at Castaway Cay. And we were awed that we got to swim with some stingrays (stinger-free).

Of course, the price might inspire a little shock and awe too. Depending on the season, rates start at $349 per person. But for an all-inclusive vacation with 24-7 entertainment, Broadway-style shows, fireworks, a private island experience, and best of all, no lines, I'd almost call it a bargain.
-- Sally Lee

Copyright © 2007. Reprinted with permission from the July 2007 issue of Parents magazine.