Want to guarantee a magical trip to see Mickey? Try our no-fail Disney plan—personalized for your family. Whether you're traveling with a big group, very young kids, a special-needs child, or are keeping a close watch on your wallet, we have the perfect trip for you.
Go when school is in session to avoid crowds. Hit the parks early in the morning, and head back to the hotel after lunch for a nap or swim. Return for parades and fireworks when the kids are refreshed.
Disney monorail hotels, such as the Contemporary and the Polynesian, offer the easiest access to the Magic Kingdom (from $260 to $525 a night). Or stay at the Best Western Lake Buena Vista Hotel, and take the resort's free shuttle to the Magic Kingdom. Rooms start at $69 per night. For a fantastic view of Epcot fireworks, ask for a room above the eighth floor, facing downtown Disney (800-348-3765, www.orlandoresorthotel.com).Don't Miss
Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland -- especially Dumbo the Flying Elephant (ride it first!) and the Winnie-the-Pooh ride. Next, stroll to Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin and Mickey's Toontown Fair (where children can meet the famous mouse at his house). Catch Cinderella's Surprise Celebration show in front of the castle.
Eat in your room at breakfast, and have a speedy lunch at a counter-service restaurant, like Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe at the Magic Kingdom. For a quiet place to feed babies and toddlers, duck into a free Baby Care Center (there's one in each Disney park). It's equipped with rockers, high chairs, and toys, and it has formula and baby food for sale. Take-out dinners may be more relaxing than sit-down restaurants, but plan one character meal, so your kids can mingle with their favorites. Popular picks include the Crystal Palace buffet with Pooh and pals, or the princess breakfasts at the Cinderella Castle and Epcot's Norway (reserve 60 days in advance; 407-939-3463).
Bring snacks and toys to distract kids while in line, and take frequent breaks. In the Magic Kingdom, kids can chill out at Ariel's Grotto and Donald's Boat -- sprinkler areas guaranteed to revive even the crankiest (don't forget to pack your kids' bathing suits).
"Research rides beforehand so you know what might be scary," says Janine Ewing, a Scarsdale, New York, mom of two preschoolers. "My daughter, Natalie, then 4, was frightened by anything noisy or dark, including the Sea Witch at the Little Mermaid show."
Get everyone's input on attraction preferences (and adults' lodging and dining budgets), and draft an itinerary with agreed-upon choices. Factor in time for splitting up. (Grandparents might golf or see Cirque du Soleil while you hit a water park.)
Book a three- to six-bedroom house with a private pool at Windsor Palms resort, a 15-minute drive from Disney's gates; $159 to $269 a night, plus a 15 percent discount for Parents readers and an extra 5 percent discount for groups with extended family members (888-464-6353, www.windsorpalmsresort.com). Or stay at Marriott's Orlando World Center, just 1 1/2 miles from Disney. It's got something for everyone, including a huge lagoon-shaped pool with a water slide, two kiddie pools, and ten restaurants. Vacation packages start at $119 a night and include unlimited golf (800-621-0638, www.marriottworldcenter.com).
Age-spanning parades and sit-down shows, such as The Disney Stars and Motor Cars parade, and Fantasmic! in Disney-MGM Studios; Animal Kingdom's Lion King festival; and Epcot's Tapestry of Dreams procession and Illuminations fireworks.
Restaurants with buffets and family-style service satisfy the widest variety of tastes. Sample the South African-inspired food at Boma in the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Or head to Ohana at the Polynesian resort or Whispering Canyon Café at the Wilderness Lodge for barbecues.
Spend mornings together at classic attractions like It's a Small World; then split up. Mom might take the tots to meet characters; Dad can conquer Space Mountain with the daredevils; older adults can enjoy the Hall of Presidents.
"Don't sweat it if someone wants to do something unexpected," says Scott Avery, a father of two from Naperville, Illinois. "Once, we ducked into Epcot's Innoventions and found enough fun for everyone in our group of 11. Now it's on our itinerary every year!"
Get Disney's free Guidebooks for Guests With Disabilities in advance for information on wheelchair accessibility, Braille guides, and much more (407-934-7639 or 407-827-5141 [TTY], www.disneyworld.com). Special-needs visitors get easy access to ride loading areas. (For hidden disabilities, go to guest relations for a special-assistance pass at the first park you visit.)
Though most area hotels offer handicapped-accessible rooms, Disney's hotels, including the Polynesian, the Grand Floridian, and the Animal Kingdom Lodge also have pools where wheelchairs can be rolled right in; from $200 to $800 per night. Disney's Fort Wilderness campgrounds feature fully equipped cabins from $229 to $329 per night (407-939- 7807 or 407-939-7670 [TTY], www.disneyworld.com). For complex health needs, Accessible Journeys creates packages that include lodging in vacation homes, a wheelchair-accessible van, and medical equipment (800-846-4537, www.accessiblejourneys.com).
Rides that are especially wheelchair-friendly: Animal Kingdom's Kilimanjaro Safaris; Magic Kingdom's The Magic Carpets of Aladdin, Walt Disney World Railroad (a shortcut to Frontierland and Mickey's Toontown Fair), and Jungle Cruise, which has an assisted-listening system. If a water park is on your agenda, make it Blizzard Beach, where wheelchairs can be rolled into the shallow Tike's Peak Wading Pool or the rowdier Melt Away Bay wave pool.
At peak times, Disney's counter-service restaurants can be difficult to maneuver with wheelchairs, so eat early or late. All full-service restaurants in Disney World accommodate dietary requests with 24-hour notice (call 407-939-3463). Choose the Mama Melrose or The Hollywood Brown Derby in Disney-MGM Studios or Epcot's Akershus or Tangerine Cafe; these may be less crowded at peak times.
Determine in advance which wild rides are most appropriate for your special-needs child, so he or she isn't disappointed. Some -- like Space Mountain (where kids ride individually) and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster (which flips upside down three times) -- might be impossible. Instead, consider Test Track or Splash Mountain, where you can hold your child as you ride.
"Some rides require that you take your child out of the wheelchair," says Nancy Hughes, of Bloomington, Indiana, a foster mom of several special-needs kids. "Disney employees aren't allowed to assist with that, so be prepared to carry your child to the ride when necessary."
Disney's budget All-Star resorts feature sports-, music-, or movie-themed pools and playgrounds, park transportation, food courts, and rooms starting at $77 (407-934-7639, www.disneyworld.com). Or stay off-site at the Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites Main Gate East, where guests can stay one night and get the next free. The rooms include in-room refrigerators, and kids under age 12 eat free when accompanied by an adult. Standard rooms range from $69 to $99 per night; Parents readers get a special deal on kid suites, which come with bunk beds ($75 a night; mention rate code: Parent. Call 800-366-5437, www.orlando-family-fun-hotel.com).
Free thrills, including riding up front with the monorail driver; Epcot's Innoventions West, where kids can try out the latest video games; and the Electric Water Pageant (see it from the beach at any of Disney's monorail hotels. If you're not staying at one, you can bus or drive over). Chip 'n' Dale's Campfire Sing-a-Long at the Fort Wilderness campground is another free treat.
Stock up on quick-fix food, and eat in your room whenever possible. In the parks, get pizza and a salad for less at Toy Story Pizza Planet in Disney-MGM Studios. When splurging on sit-down restaurants, do it at lunchtime (when prices are cheaper than for dinner but the menu is usually the same).
Buy young children an inexpensive souvenir on the first day to keep them from hounding you the whole trip. Convert the older kids' allowance into Disney Dollars as soon as you arrive, so they can monitor their spending and budget when they shop.
"Skip the rental car," suggests Wendy Lewis, a mother of two from Fort Collins, Colorado. "It's cheaper to use a town-car service to and from the airport. Ours even included a stop at the local supermarket so we could stock up on food!"
Consider your stamina, as much as your kids', since you won't have back-up help. Allow enough days so you can sometimes skip parks and relax at your resort. Stick to rides that can be conquered together (unless kids are old enough to ride alone), but suggest alternatives for any that must be missed. For example, if Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is too wild, try the calmer Barnstormer coaster.
Nearby offsite suite hotels offer separate sleeping areas, kitchenettes, videogames, free meals, shuttle service, and affordable prices. Try the whimsically-themed kidsuites at Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort (with movie theater, childcare, and kids-eat-free program); $109 to $159 per night (800-366-6299; Kid Suites). Or, check out Buena Vista Suites, where four-night packages with park passes and complimentary breakfast start at $519 per adult; $195 for children 3 to 9 (800-537-7737).
Places where you can take a breather while kids enjoy hands-on activities, like: Kidcot Fun Stops in Epcot's World Showcase pavilions (kids learn culture through crafts); Epcot's Fitness Fairgrounds in Wonders of Life (interactive sports equipment and a "Goofy" movie); Animal Kingdom's Boneyard (relax on a bench while kids climb the jungle gym); and Disney-MGM Studio's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire: Play It! (with trigger-finger computers at everyone's seat).
Grab cheap nibbles, like fresh fruit, turkey legs, and McDonald's fries, at stands throughout the parks. When you want a sit-down restaurant, choose one with built-in entertainment. At The Sci-Fi Dine-In at Disney-MGM Studios, kids eat in vintage cars as movie trailers and cartoons play on a drive-in screen.
Give yourself a well-deserved break by taking advantage of your hotel's childcare (if offered), or one of Disney's organized kids' activities (open to all). Kids 3 to 10 can embark on a 2-hour Pirate Treasure Hunt Cruise; or decorate cupcakes with Alice and the Mad Hatter at the hour-long Wonderland Tea Party. Both $25 per child; at Grand Floridian resort. (Call 407-WDW-DINE to reserve).
"I went with a friend who had kids close in age to mine," says Debbi Borchers, a single mom of 3 from Cincinnati. "The kids had instant playmates, and I got adult companionship, as well as an extra pair of hands!"
There's more to Orlando than Disney and Universal. Here are some other great spots for family fun.
What's Great: With exhibits like the unbelievable BodyZone, the museum makes science awesome and surprising.
Cost: Adults, $10;
kids 3-11, $7.50;
kids under 3, free.
What's Great: Your kids will be astonished by the giant reptiles. They'll learn a lot too. Don't miss the gator-wrestling show!
Cost: Adults, $20;
kids 3-12, $10;
kids under 3, free.
What's Great: Shamu is the star, but kids love the Wild Arctic exhibit and the fun water-play area.
Cost: Adults, $52;
kids 3-9, $42;
kids under 3, free.
What's Great: This wide, paved trail winds 22 miles through nature areas and picnic spots.
Cost: $5 an hour and up for bike rentals