I’ve slightly irritated myself before I’ve even started this post by putting ‘surviving’ in the headline. To be honest, I’ve done it to pander to the kinds of ways I see people talking about this (ergo, perhaps, searching for it). Let me reassure you, there is no survival involved, although you might occasionally get a bit shirty with one another. It is, genuinely, meant to be fun. Sure, there’ll be at least one moment where you’ll threaten to sell your kids to Mickey for a Dole Whip and five minutes’ peace, but come on. You’re in Walt Disney World. You are not suffering. That happens when you get home.
So, that said, there are certainly ways to make the process smoother and ensure that more of the family gets to tick off the things on the wish list without too many rows. I warn you now: most of these are going to involve planning. You don’t need to be 100% military about this – there is room for a certain amount of flow-going – but there is a phenomenal amount to do and see and the best way to avoid missing lots of it is to lay it all out, at least roughly, before you set foot on the plane.
I’ve assumed here that you’re a first timer or you haven’t been in at least 5 years, since some of these systems came into use, but also that you have looked into it a bit and have an idea what you want to see and do.
1. Book your attraction tickets
A lot of packages will include this, but if not – get it sorted. Not only will it allow you to get to grips with Fastpass+ and dining bookings, you get UK special prices that generally involve, say, 14 days for the price of 7.
If you’re staying on site, you’ll get issued a Magic Band which is your ticket, potentially credit card and room key in one, all strapped to your wrist; if not, you can buy one when you get there. It offers the convenience of having your ticket (and therefore FastPasses) to hand at all times, and you can add charging privileges – for the adults only. Plus it’s a customisable accessory and souvenir, I suppose. But there aren’t any massive advantages to it if you’re off-site – and it does make it easier to spend!
2. Work out a daily park plan
Use a crowd calendar to identify the typically least busy day for each park, and map out a plan for which days you’ll be where. This will help you start doing all your pre-booking.
3. Download the My Disney Experience app
Add your tickets and / or Magic Bands, and you’re ready to go with all your advance bookings from the day your booking slots open (more on this in a moment). Add your entire party under one account – and for goodness’ sake give each person a nickname so you can easily plan who goes where – and then you can do group and sub-group bookings super easily. You can also bookmark plans and consult the app for wait times and directions when you’re in the park. The wait times tend to be quite accurate, updating about 5 minutes after they update at the attraction itself (considerably more promptly than Universal’s app, and the whole thing is much more easily navigable too).
4. Make ADRs – Advance Dining Reservations
If you’re staying on-site, these can be made 190 days out; for the rest of the world it’s 180 days. You want to be on this ON THE DAY if you’re going at a popular time of year (any school holiday) and want to get into Be Our Guest. Particularly if you have a big party. Be a little flexible if you can; obviously 12-2 is peak lunch time so if you’re prepared to battle through on $5 Mickey pretzels and supermarket snacks in your backpack in order to get to a popular place at 3pm, do it. Also, you have until 24 hours before to cancel, so book fast and think about it afterwards – just remember to cancel before that time or you’ll get charged $10 per person for no-shows.
Character meals can be super expensive, but tend to be worthwhile as a one-off. As we weren’t sure of getting into any princessy meet n greets, we did the Akershus breakfast in Epcot. For four adults and two kids it was a whopping $260 all in, but the girls got to meet four princesses (Belle, Aurora, Snow White and Ariel), pose for photos and get autographs, and go on a ‘princess procession’ round the room with them. The food was pretty good too; a plate of bacon, sausage, eggs and breakfast potato casserole was brought to the table and there were pastries, breads, cold cuts, the odd Norwegian nod (eg smoked salmon and herring) and fruits, cereals and yogurts at the buffet. [More on food in Florida]
The new Fastpass+ system sounds complicated but is easy enough to get used to. It works like this:
– 30 days out, you can book up to 3 FP+ attractions per day (only one park at a time, so you can’t do, say, 1 at Magic Kingdom and 2 at Epcot for the same day). You can do this on the app or the My Disney Experience website.
– The bookings give you an hour-long slot to turn up at an attraction and go into the non-standby queue; this can be as short as a walk-on or maybe up to 15 minutes. When standby queues at busy times run up to anywhere between 1 and 3 hours, it’s a godsend. Be warned, though – meet n greets such as Fairytale Hall to see Anna & Elsa are often booked up solidly weeks ahead and are hard to get into.
– On the day, if you burn through you FP+ bookings, you can add one further one at a time on a rolling basis. You’ll need to do this in person at a FP+ kiosk in the park.
So, for example: you’ve got Soarin’ booked for 09:20-10:20, Spaceship Earth at 11:00-12:00 and Test Track at 14:15-15:15. Once you’ve done Test Track, make your way over to a FP+ kiosk and see what’s still available for you to squeeze onto for the rest of the day (at busy times of year, I can guarantee it won’t be Soarin’…)
6. Plan for the weather
Florida has tropical weather. You will need sun protection, particularly for kids, and you should plan for rainstorms, particularly in the summer (cheap plastic ponchos also come in handy on water rides). Although usually April temperatures are around 25 degrees (Centigrade), when we went this year it was solidly 30-33 degrees.
Kids – especially youngsters like my 4yo daughter and niece – can struggle in the heat, compounded by a LOT of walking (it’s huge, really it is). You won’t want massively heavy bags if you can avoid it, but do buy small bottles of water that you can refill at the water fountains, which are practically everywhere (and always near a loo). Stay hydrated and don’t be overly ambitious with plans (got a FP+ for Soarin’ at 11:50 and reckon you can be at Via Napoli for lunch at 12:05? Nope. Italy is at the furthest point over in the World Showcase and that walk takes longer than you think…). Consider taking or hiring a stroller for the very youngest. Our girls were fine walking, but 3yos and younger will need help and you won’t want a baby in a sling all day in that weather.
7. Don’t forget the shows
Not every attraction is a ride. Shows tend to have large capacity and are a welcome air conditioning break when the sun is high and your patience with tantrums is low.
8. Set a souvenir budget and let the kids control it
Each of the kids we had with us had a purse with their souvenir budget in it. They were reminded we were going to Universal as well (home of minions! And Marvel Super Hero Island! And Seuss Landing!), and encouraged not just to buy the first thing they liked. But they were also given a certain amount of autonomy over their spending money and allowed to choose their own treats to take home. This obviously is a bit much to ask for the youngest, but it worked really well with both the four-year-olds and the eight-year-old. And it prevents any demands for anything ridiculously expensive or arguments over who gets what.
9. Set aside time for non-park activities
Obviously this depends to a certain extent on how long you’re there, but remember that Florida has lots more to offer than just Walt Disney World – not to mention some fairly decent outlet shopping. At the very least opt for a day or two in a water park which will help recharge your batteries for another day of trekking around the parks.
10. Remember Child Swap
Kids vary in sensitivity and interest levels, and some rides are simply going to be too intense or out of bounds due to height restrictions. When you join the queue, speak to a Cast Member and they’ll take you through how to do a ‘Child Swap’. Generally speaking, you line up as normal but then at some point one rider (or couple, if, like us, there are four adults*) gets funnelled off to ride while the other one(s) sit in a waiting room; afterwards, you swap. The kid spends the whole time in the waiting room. (Actually, the waiting rooms at the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions over at Universal are awesome; you get to watch bits of the films and see the incredible ride queues.) Anyway, the point is there’s no need for the adults to miss out on seeking thrills just because there are young ‘uns in tow.
*To be honest, this is tip number 11: safety in numbers. If you have any option at all to go as a bigger group with aunts and uncles, grandparents or good friends, take it. You can find cheaper shared accommodation options, it’s much easier to be able to split into groups – for example, my nephew hates Frozen and the girls have no idea who Indiana Jones is, so guess how we divided up for shows at Hollywood Studios? – AND you can take a date or solo night off to do stuff without someone needing to show you something / go to the toilet / annoy their sibling every 45 minutes. I appreciate this is not an option for everyone, but it’s one to grab with both hands if you have it.
Are you a WDW veteran? Got any better tips for families? Share ’em in the comments.
And just in case you were wondering, there’s no disclaimer because this was just a family holiday and no payment or freebies exchanged hands to make this post possible. Just a long-held obsession with the place…