Want to guarantee a magical trip to see Mickey? Try our no-fail Disney plan – personalized for your family.

By Ellen H. Parlapiano and Michelle Crouch

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.

Disney for Young Kids

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.

Where to Stay: Disney monorail hotels, such as the Contemporary and the Polynesian, offer the easiest access to the Magic Kingdom. Or stay at the Best Western Lake Buena Vista Hotel, and take the resort's free shuttle to the Magic Kingdom. For a fantastic view of Epcot fireworks, ask for a room above the eighth floor, facing downtown Disney.

What to Do: 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.

Dining Tips: 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).

Other Tips: 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."

Disney With a Large or Extended Family

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.)

Where to Stay: Book a Disney Vacation Club villa. They sleep eight to 12, have a full kitchen and living room, and can be more affordable than separately booked hotel rooms. And you don’t have to be a Disney Vacation Club member! Or stay at Marriott's Orlando World Center, just 1.5 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.

What to Do: Age-spanning parades and sit-down shows, such as The Disney Stars and Motor Cars parade, and Fantasmic! in Disney-MGM Studios, as well as Animal Kingdom's Lion King festival.

Dining Tips: 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.

If you want a sit-down restaurant, call ahead for reservations. “The trick to getting a reservation for a larger group is to break it into smaller groups, but you have to do that by phone,” says Olga Rodriguez, mom of two and a travel agent in Berea, Ohio. “Ask them, ‘I have a group of 12—can we have three tables of four together?’ And bingo, you’ll get one.”

Other Tips:

  • 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.

  • Pick a smart meeting place. It’s okay to separate for a little while! If some of your fam want to shop while the rest hop on Splash Mountain, meet at guest relations rather than Cinderella’s castle, which is one of the most crowded areas, Palma says.

  • Try a guided group adventure. Disney’s Family Magic Tour is a two-hour interactive scavenger hunt that will have everyone in your group playing games, acting silly, and working together to find clues throughout the park. “If you have a party of ten or more, we may be able to do a tour just for your group,” Palma says.

 

Disney For Special Needs Visitors

Get Disney's free Guidebooks for Guests With Disabilities in advance for information on wheelchair accessibility, Braille guides, and much more . 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.)

Where to Stay: 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. Disney's Fort Wilderness campgrounds feature fully equipped cabins. For complex health needs, Accessible Journeys creates packages that include lodging in vacation homes, a wheelchair-accessible van, and medical equipment.

What to Do: 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.

Dining Tips: 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.

Other Tips: 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 on a Shoestring Budget

Check out deals on www.mousesavers.com and www.orlandoinfo.com, or use a travel agent specializing in affordable Disney vacations, such as Magical Journeys. AAA members get additional discounts on park tickets and vacation packages, so don't forget to ask about them.

Where to Stay: Disney's budget All-Star resorts feature sports-, music-, or movie-themed pools and playgrounds, park transportation, food courts, and rooms. 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.

What to Do: 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 Electrical 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.

Dining Tips: 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).

Other Tips: 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!"

Disney for Single Parents

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.

Where to Stay: Nearby offsite suite hotels offer separate sleeping areas, kitchenettes, videogames, free meals, shuttle service, and affordable prices.

What to Do: 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).

Dining Tips: 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.

Sanity Saver: 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).

Other Tips: "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!"

Best Insider's Tips for Walt Disney World

  • Chart your course. Figure out in advance what you want to do. Helpful sites include Disney World, AllEars.net, Mouse Planet, The Mouse For Less, and Mouse Savers.
  • Stay on site. Though not the least expensive option, Disney resorts provide the quickest transportation to its parks. Plus, guests benefit from the "Extra Magic Hours," when, each day, one of the theme parks opens early or stays open late for Disney resort guests.

  • Check the boards at the center of each park for an update on wait times, and head for the rides with the shortest lines.

  • Get a FastPass+. Available only for certain attractions, FastPass+ allows you to return at a specified time, when you can enter a ride with a minimal wait.

  • Be realistic. At peak times (the summer months, as well as Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas breaks), you may conquer only a few attractions a day. Crowds are thinnest in January, October, early November, and December (before Christmas week).

  • Purchase park passes in advance. This allows you to avoid any potential price increase. Tickets can be ordered by calling 407-934-7639, through the Disney site, or at any Disney store.

  • Pick a Park-Hopper pass. Unless you're planning to stay only a day or two, multi-day Park-Hopper passes give you admission to the four main Disney theme parks, plus the flexibility to "hop" from park to park each day.

  • Get the free Orlando Magic Card for a variety of discounts in the Orlando area (800-551-0181, Orlando Info).

  • Split up your stay. Consider spending most of your time at a budget resort. Then splurge by staying a night or two at one of the pricier Disney hotels.

  • Ask about special deals when booking your trip, and mention if you belong to AAA (Automobile Club of America) – you may qualify for a discount.

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