The August issue of Child includes suggestions for making the most of a trip to Walt Disney World from readers who have vacationed at Disney with their families. Below, dozens more tips from our real-life experts.
Walkie-talkies: If your kids are older or your group might want to split up and reconnect, you can rent pagers from Guest Services at the parks. Some readers bring along their own walkie-talkies (such as the Motorola TalkAbout, with a two-mile range).
Snacks: Bring your own water bottles (some parents freeze them the night before), juice boxes, fruit, and snacks so you can feed toddlers easily on the go. Though you're technically not allowed to picnic in the parks, it can be a lifesaver to have a fresh PB&J sandwich to eat on the go.
Rain gear: Pack lightweight jackets or ponchos (in summer, it usually rains briefly at least once a day), a sweatshirt or sweater for evening, and a change of clothes for kids who will likely get wet in fountains or rides or spill an entire ice cream cone down their front. Check it all in a locker near the park's entrance so you don't have to lug it around.
Sun gear: High-SPF sunscreen is a must year-round, as are extremely comfortable shoes and socks. (It doesn't hurt to bring along Band-Aids, moleskin, and antibiotic ointment for blister first aid.) Spray bottles of water or even personal fans will ease the heat of waiting in line in summer.
To make sure your kids get to see their favorite Disney icons, schedule a character meal where Mickey and the gang meet and greet every child as you enjoy a family-style or buffet meal. These can be reserved 60 or sometimes 120 days in advance (call 407-WDW-DINE), which is essential for the most popular locations, like breakfast at Cinderella's Royal Table in the Magic Kingdom. Other popular venues include Chef Mickey's at the Contemporary, the Crystal Palace in the Magic Kingdom, 1900 Park Fare at the Grand Floridian, 'Ohana at the Polynesian, and the Garden Grill at Epcot. If your child is set on meeting a particular character, check out www.wdwig.com, which lists the characters that appear at each meal. These are great autograph and photo opportunities.
All the parks post character appearances on maps and boards near the entrances. And instead of queuing up in the endless line at Mickey's Toontown Fair, be open to serendipitous sightings: "One morning as we were strolling through Epcot, a double-decker bus with nearly every character unloaded in front of us," a Child reader reports. "We were able to get pictures with everyone -- there was hardly anyone else around!" Young children may enjoy collecting character autographs in books available at every souvenir stand. Some parents say this was great fun; others found it a huge time-waster and preferred to snap a quick photo instead.
Ease preschoolers into rides that take place in the dark by starting with something cheerful, such as It's a Small World. Move up to Peter Pan's Flight, then maybe Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin. Bring along a light-up toy (there are plenty of fun ones at Disney) to ease fears of the dark. "Don't assume that a theater presentation will not frighten your child," adds Bob Sehlinger, author of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World With the Kids. "Rides like Splash Mountain may look scary, but they do not have one-fiftieth the potential for terrorizing children of attractions like Alien Encounter [a super-scary Star Wars-related ride] or It's Tough to Be a Bug [a show in which insects seem to be crawling on viewers in the dark]." On the other hand, if your child is a thrill-seeker, you may want to wait to visit Disney until she's 40 inches tall (in shoes) or she'll be endlessly frustrated that she can't go on some of the most exciting rides.
The Wilderness Lodge: Modeled on the Ahwahnee Lodge in Yosemite, with its towering log-cabin lobby and a river running through it, a geyser that erupts hourly, bunk beds for the kids, and a great pool and sand beach, this resort has the feeling of a true rustic getaway (though rooms are on the small side). Access to the Magic Kingdom is by boat, but transportation is less convenient to the other parks.
The Beach and Yacht Clubs: On the water near Epcot, these romantic New England-style seaside retreats share a pool that's a virtual water park, with a winding sand-bottom lagoon, tide pools, and a shipwrecked pirate galleon with a fantastic water slide, as well as a kiddie pool and slide. The nearby Boardwalk area offers lots of great restaurant and entertainment options.
The Polynesian: Great with young kids, this older, low-rise resort is right on the monorail (so it's easy to make shorter jaunts to the Magic Kingdom), with a view of Cinderella Castle and the fireworks. The South Seas island theme is fun, and the pool features a waterfall and slide, plus there's a quiet, sandy beach.
Animal Kingdom Lodge: This new resort is like an overnight stay at the zoo, though you should splurge for Savanna rooms to make sure you get a good view. Bunk beds are available, plus fun restaurants and an evening story time by the fire. (Downside: It's one of the farthest resorts from the Magic Kingdom).
Port Orleans-Riverside: For a moderately priced resort ($129 to $199 a night), lots of families love this resort (formerly Dixie Landings), which has antebellum romance and Ol' Man Island with a large pool, waterfalls, slides, a fishing hole, and a playground.
All-Star Resorts: The price is right at these resorts, themed by music, movies, and sports, plus the new Pop Century resort. Though rooms are small ("think dorms," says one parent) and the hotels are sprawling, the themes are fun, the pools are big, and the food courts are family-friendly -- plus all the perks of staying chez Mickey for only $77 to $104 per night.
Having dinner at different resorts or parks can be a fun way to soak up more atmosphere. Young children usually aren't that interested in Epcot, but dinner at one of the restaurants in the World Showcase followed by the IllumiNations light show can be a nice way to get a taste of the park. "We ate dinner at Wilderness Lodge and had a character breakfast one morning at the Polynesian, and it was a fun way to experience the ambience of those resorts," one reader says. One caveat: It can be time-consuming to get from one resort to another on Disney transportation. If you're not renting a car, take a taxi instead.
If you're staying at a Disney resort, you can use the kids' clubs/babysitting services at any resort (space permitting) for children ages 4-12. So, for example, you and your spouse can enjoy a meal at Spoodles while your kids play at the BoardWalk Harbor Club, or you can share a romantic dinner at Artist Point while the kids watch Disney movies at the Cub's Den in the Wilderness Lodge. The most popular kids' club is the Neverland Club at the Polynesian. These well-run facilities include arts and crafts activities, toys, movies, and pillows and blankets, sometimes even bunks, for sleepyheads. The rates run $6-9 per hour and can include dinner. Kids Night Out Recreation and Resort Management offers a daycare center as well as in-room babysitting for children of all ages (407-827-5444).
Children are welcome at all Disney restaurants, even the fancy ones. For example, at the upscale Flying Fish Caf?, kids are handed their own mini water-ring games and their menu features frozen drinks similar to Mom and Dad's. At any Disney restaurant, there are always crayons and coloring pages on hand, kids' menus and friendly waiters.
In general, the atmosphere, not the food, is the draw at these cleverly themed eateries:
Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater at Disney-MGM: Sit in a 1950s-era convertible and watch campy sci-fi cartoons and flicks as you dine on fare like "Creature From the Pasta Lagoon" served by carhops in this fun, retro eatery.
50s Prime Time Caf? at Disney-MGM: Another blast from the past, with diner decor, comfort food, TVs playing black-and-white sitcom classics and June Cleaver-like waitresses who correct your manners. The dessert menu is on a Viewmaster!
Rainforest Cafe: Dine in a tropical jungle, with thunderstorms, waterfalls, and animals real and faux at branches of this popular chain in the Animal Kingdom and Downtown Disney.
Hoop-Dee-Doo Revue: Kids and adults alike join in the rollicking fun of this Western stage show at Fort Wilderness, while chowing down on fried chicken served in pails and barbecued ribs. (The location is remote, though, and the prices sure aren't KFC). A slightly less expensive alternative: Mickey's Backyard BBQ, also at Fort Wilderness, with a country band, Disney characters, and picnic fixin's.
'Ohana: Not as pricey as the Polynesian Luau (but indoors), this all-you-can-eat feast features food cooked over an open fire pit, plus coconut races, Polynesian singers, and hula hoop contests to entertain the kids. Whispering Canyon Caf? at Wilderness Lodge also offers fun activities like stick pony races along with family-style informal meals.
Coral Reef: You'll feel like you're under the sea watching the fish swim by as you eat at this expensive restaurant with front-row views of the Living Seas aquarium in Epcot. Kids get tip sheets to help them ID the aquatic life and edible peanut-butter dough for dessert!
California Grill: On the top floor of the Contemporary, with great views of the Kingdom and inventive California cuisine from one of WDW's top chefs.
Flying Fish Caf?: On the Boardwalk, a lively (loud), colorful restaurant with innovative "New American" seafood.
Citricos: Light, flavorful Provencal cuisine at The Grand Floridian, with an open kitchen and views of the Seven Seas Lagoon.
Jiko: New restaurant in the Animal Kingdom with a decor inspired by The Lion King, featuring wood-burning ovens and grills, international fusion cooking, and wines from South Africa.
In general, the fast food at Disney is pretty pathetic, especially in the Magic Kingdom. On the other hand, who wants to waste time on a sit-down lunch when there are rides to be conquered? Look for the best of the bunch for quick eats.
In the Magic Kingdom: Aunt Polly's Dockside Inn, a nice, shady escape on Tom Sawyer Island with basic sandwiches (PB&J) and root beer floats; Columbia Harbour House, in Liberty Square, a shipshape spot with fish, chowder, and sandwiches.
In the Animal Kingdom: Tusker House, with savory rotisserie chicken; Flame Tree Barbecue.
In Epcot: Sunshine Season Food Fair, a food court with a refreshing amount of variety; Pure and Simple, if you're looking for hard-to-find healthful fare; Ice Station Cool in Future World, where the kids can cool off and try out all kinds of weird flavors of Coca Cola inside an ice tunnel. At World Showcase, try Tangierine Cafe for good Middle Eastern food or Yakitori House for Japanese grilled chicken skewers.
At Disney-MGM: Backlot Express, an off-the-beaten-track cafeteria disguised as a prop shop, which serves up decent basics without the crowds.
Among the mountain of guidebooks out there, here are some favorites: