Disney, Three Ways
One glass slipper doesn't fit all. Based on your family's desires, travel experts help you plan the trip of your dreams with your real-world wallet.
Plan 1: For the Park Pro
Your family has taken several trips to Walt Disney World, in Orlando. You want to go again, but what haven't you seen? Learn about the latest happenings.
Stay Look into the newest resort: Disney's Art of Animation. The final phase of rooms, decorated in The Little Mermaid theme, opened in September with rates starting at about $100 per night. Family suites with The Lion King, Cars, or Finding Nemo décor (starting at $249 per night) are also available. "Art of Animation has so many cool touches," says Deborah Bowen, a Disney Parks Moms Panelist who has been to the park more than 100 times with her two sons, ages 8 and 9. "In the Finding Nemo rooms, for instance, the lights are shaped like bubbles and if you go underwater in the pool, you'll hear the voices of some of the characters from the movie."
Play Focus on New Fantasyland, which reopened in December with new attractions such as Under the Sea Journey of The Little Mermaid and Enchanted Tales With Belle. For Ariel's ride, families hop inside a giant clamshell and are immersed in bubbles as they hear the mermaid's story. In Belle's attraction, guests are led into the library where she and Lumière give them a chance to take part in the telling of the princess's story. A sweet touch: "Children who participate receive a nice bookmark," says Bowen. What's more, Disney's Dumbo attraction has new water and light features and no lines! A pager system lets families know when it's their turn to hop on. More new must-sees: characters from Wreck-It Ralph at Disney's Hollywood Studios and a renovated Test Track Epcot, where you can design your own car and see how it manages the hills and hairpin turns of the test-track circuit. For an insider feel, book a behind-the-scenes tour such as Disney's Family Magic ($34 per person), a two-hour scavenger hunt around the Magic Kingdom. Pass time while you're waiting in line looking for Hidden Mickeys, images of the mouse ears concealed in the design of an attraction, a restaurant, or a hotel. "A Disney cast member can often give you hints about where to find them," says Jodie Hilson, a Disney Parks Moms Panelist who has four children.
Eat The hottest restaurant is Be Our Guest, in the Beast's new castle in New Fantasyland. When you go for lunch you order at a counter and receive a rose to take to your table. "Using technology in the rose, the staff is able to track which table you're sitting at and deliver your food on a glass cart," says Bowen. (For dinner, you order at the table and can make reservations.) If Cinderella Castle is "been there, done that," try 1900 Park Fare at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa for a dinner buffet with Prince Charming and Cinderella and her stepsisters. Outside the parks, get the turkey sliders and barbecued-chicken pizzas at Splitsville, a new upscale bowling alley in Downtown Disney.
Save Don't overdo it on souvenirs, especially if you know you're likely to come back in the future. "Instead, give your child a $25 Disney gift card and, on the last day, let her spend it however she wants," says Mary Waring, founder of mousesavers.com.
Notes to a Newbie
If your children have never been inside the kingdom -- or you haven't gone in years -- follow our expert guide for first-time families.
Stay Book a room in one of 25 hotels owned and operated by Disney. They offer a free shuttle from the Orlando airport, bus transportation from your hotel to the theme parks, and special early openings or late closings. Among the budget resorts, the Disney's All-Star Sports or All-Star Music (starting at $84 per night) are the best picks if you have young kids. There are baby pools, playgrounds, and open outdoor spaces for kids to run around, says Len Testa, author of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2013. Want to sprawl out? The family suites at the All-Star Music Resort, with a pull-out couch in the living room, two bathrooms, and a mini kitchen, start at $198 per night. If you can afford to spend more, opt for Disney's Grand Floridian, Contemporary, Wilderness Lodge, or Polynesian. They're an easy boat or monorail ride to the Magic Kingdom.
Play Make meeting characters a top priority. If your child wants to get an autograph from a particular character, ask a Disney cast member where and when that character will appear, suggests Debra Martin Koma, founder of allears.net, which maintains a list of many of the characters and their location in each park. Deciding which park to go to on what day can be tricky. About a month before your trip, look at touringplans.com, which offers park hours and daily crowd estimates. Download the free app My Disney Experience Walt Disney World to check on wait times for rides and make dining reservations. Coming soon: You'll be able to use the app to select FastPasses before leaving home and get the new MagicBand, which will serve as a resort room key, theme-park ticket, FastPass entry, Photopass card, and payment account (optional) in one.
Eat You can book your dining reservations 180 days before your trip, but except for dinners in the castles and a few fancy restaurants, you can wait until one to two months prior to decide, says Waring. "Since Disney gets last-minute cancellations, you can sometimes book same-day reservations," she says. What's the quintessential family restaurant all first-timers must try? "Go to Garden Grill, in Epcot," suggests AJ Wolfe, founder of disneyfoodblog.com. "It features Mickey, Pluto, and Chip and Dale in farmer garb and serves food family-style. The restaurant rotates, giving different views of the Living With the Land attraction below."
Save BYOS -- bring your own stroller! Disney rentals cost $15 to $31 per day. Also take along your own snacks and drinks; Disney is one of the few theme parks that allows outside food. Order water and food from gardengrocer.com, have it delivered to your hotel room, and pack it for the park.
The kids are begging to see Mickey and the gang, but you have a much more relaxing trip in mind. You can enjoy the best of both worlds.
Stay Book a room a few miles away from all the fanfare and characters and drive to the parks. At the Grande Lakes properties (a combo of the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton), you can kayak on the creek, take a family nature hike, float down the lazy-river pool, and get a spa treatment on days that you're not in the park. (Rooms with two double beds start at $169 per night for the Marriott and $283 per night for the Ritz.) Another option: Stay in Orlando for three nights, then drive 90 minutes to the St. Petersburg/Tampa area to end your vacay on Fort De Soto Beach; its calm, clean water is perfect for families. Stay at the Beach House Suites, the budget-friendly sister property of the Loews Don CeSar Hotel. Rooms (starting at $179 per night) offer a separate sleeping area for children, kitchen, DVD player, and washer/dryer.
Play Choose two of the four theme parks to visit -- the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom are the best picks if your children are under age 8, says Koma. Get there when the parks open. "You can usually do more in the first two hours at the park than in the next four or five," she says. Head straight to Fantasyland, in the Magic Kingdom; it will be far more crowded as the day progresses. "In Animal Kingdom, go on Kilimanjaro Safaris, at the back of the park, first. The lines are shorter then, and the animals are usually more active in the morning, when the temperatures are cooler," suggests Koma.
Eat Make reservations in one of the lower-key restaurants that tend to be less crowded and noisy, such as The Crystal Palace, in the Magic Kingdom, and Tusker House, in Animal Kingdom. Outside Disney, the Winter Park area of Orlando is a foodie (yet family-friendly) mecca with several restaurants, including Briarpatch (great for brunch) and 4 Rivers Smokehouse, highly ranked in Zagat's new Orlando guide.
Save Skip the "Park Hopper" option on your two-day tickets, which will trim $57 per person. Says Testa: "Plan your trip for the late summer or fall when rates -- especially in the Florida beach towns -- are at their lowest."
Don't Miss It!
Len Testa, author of the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2013 and dad, gives his top picks for each park.
Peter Pan's Flight
Dumbo the Flying Elephant
Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin
The Haunted Mansion
Under the Sea: The Journey of the Little Mermaid
The Seas with Nemo & Friends
Test Track Presented by Chevrolet
Agent P's World Showcase Adventure
Disney's Hollywood Studios
Toy Story Midway Mania!
Jim Henson's Muppet*Vision 3D
Beauty and the Beast -- Live on Stage
Disney Junior -- Live On Stage!
Festival of the Lion King
Dinosaur Finding Nemo -- The Musical
It's Tough to Be A Bug!
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Parents magazine.
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.