This is it. The moment I’ve been training for. We’ve got one more FastPass+ to hit before our lunch reservation on the other side of Magic Kingdom. The hot Orlando sun beats down heavy. The stench of old cotton candy is thick in my nostrils and my hands are sticky. My 11 month old is sleeping, but the 2.5 year old looks like he’s going to blitz. I drop back to pass and my wife clips my ankles with the stroller, but I’m still standing. My 5 year old pancake blocks my 2.5 year old out of the stroller, buying me some time. I reach into my backpack and pull out a package of fruit snacks, throw it at the 2.5 year for the score, but at the last second it’s picked off by my 8 year old. The crowd goes wild. Everyone is tantruming, including the adults. When I come to Rapunzel is swiping my credit card for another $20 family photo. This is family vacation in Disney World, the most magical place on earth. This is the Super Bowl of Parenting.
Our magic week started Sunday night. My wife didn’t feel so good when she went to bed. Long story short, 12 hours later, 4 out of the 6 Demmas were down hard with the stomach bug. James puked at TSA and Gracie covered me in hot orange-juice vomit while I was carrying her about off the Magic Express as the hotel staff exclaimed “Welcome to Disney!” I had the bug a few days prior. Luckily baby George was spared.
We holed up in our hotel room for the day and the kids bounced back fast. Everyone was a little tired on day 2, but we still had fun. The rest of our vacation was great.
The kids had a blast. Jack (8) and Grace (5) were the perfect ages. James (almost 3) and Baby George (almost 1) also had fun, but they were of course a bit too young.
Disney puts all of your parenting skills to the test. One moment calls for a combination of preparation, patience, and compromise, while other moments you just need to muscle through. The stakes and the pressure are high, and everything happens on short rest with short attention spans in an overstimulating environment. Trying to keep the vacation peaceful and on schedule is impossible. There were battles: dad vs kids, mom vs kids, mom and dad vs kids, and sometimes mom vs dad.
In addition to the mental trials parents have to deal with the physicality of Disney parks. That might mean speed walking with 75% of the team melting down or muscling up to carry two kids at a time. We averaged 6.5 miles of walking each day, which was more like rucking when you factor in backpacks, a double stroller or at least one toddler in your arms at all times.
Adversity aside, even with a gaggle of kids, the stomach bug, and the inter-squad squabbles, the trip was more than worth it. It’s a blessing for us to have had this experience as a family and we all felt very lucky and grateful.
I’ve been fascinated with Disney as a business since reading Lee Cockerell’s Creating Magic in business school. From the park design, to the cleanliness, the engaged and eager-to-serve cast members, it’s awe-inspiring to think of the culture of consistent excellence that the company has created. Combined with the mythology of Disney, the dozens of captivating movies and characters that our kids (and us) grew up on, magic really is the best way to describe the experience.
OK, so here’s what we learned from our 5 days in Disney for anyone considering a trip:
Strategies that worked
- Using a Disney travel agent: we booked our vacation and made our plans through a Disney travel agent. Our agent was a former coworker of mine, Kristi Upton, and she was amazing. In addition to park tickets and our hotel rooms, she booked all of our dining reservations and FastPass+’s, and even sent some cute gifts and guides to get the kids excited. You can reach Kristi at firstname.lastname@example.org
- FastPass+: With the purchase of every ticket you get 3 FastPass+ reservations, which let you skip the lines for popular rides. You can book these 60 days in advance if you’re staying at a Disney hotel. It’s super important to book these as soon as they become available if you want to get on the best rides. For example, the Avatar “Flight of Passage” ride had over a 3 hour wait, and we went right to the front!
- Mornings, lunch, leave, go back at night: This was our daily rhythm. We’d arrive as close to rope drop as possible, have lunch at the park, and then head back for a rest. The kids needed the break. Also the peak hours are from 11:00 – 4:00, so going back around 7:00 PM meant small crowds and shorter lines. We even got in a couple of 9:00 PM fireworks shows because we got the naps in.
- Dining plan: We used the Disney dining plan, which is a way to prepay for meals. This saved us money because you get a number of “sit down” meals at a big discount. If you don’t use the sit down meals at the right places you can end up upside down, so it’s important to make reservations.
- Sunblock, snacks, waters, wipes, etc.: Everyday I brought a backpack of supplies. The snacks and juices were life savers. There are more comprehensive lists out there (Google it), but extra prep here really paid off.
- Double stroller: Lugging around our massive double stroller on transportation was not fun, but the stroller did pay off in the parks. It’s too much walking for anyone under 6, so I was glad we had the wheels. Jack was a trooper. He walked every mile and never complained.
- Calling in the closer: Thankfully my sister Jamie came with us. We needed another adult to help out. Jamie saved the day on a number of occasions. Thank you! (Shout out to Jamie for finally making the blog. Big day.)
- Expect things to go wrong: OK, hopefully things don’t go everyone-down-with-the-stomach-bug wrong, but there’s no such thing as a perfect vacation. Overcoming adversity is where most of the value and good stories come from anyway. Aim for 70% of what you want, save some for the next time.
- There will be crying: 1, 3, and 5 year olds are going to meltdown. 100% guaranteed.
- Busiest week: We went the week after Easter, which is the 2nd busiest week of the year, behind Christmas. The crowds were overwhelming during peak hours.
- Lines: We went on very few rides without a FastPass+, but when we did wait in line it wasn’t that bad. We picked lines that were 1 hour or less and used the time to pump the kids full of fluids and snacks. That being said, I wouldn’t recommend picking a line longer than an hour. Also, I don’t recommend waiting in line to take pictures with characters. It’s a lot of waiting with no payoff really for the kids.
- Avatar Flight of Passage at Animal Kingdom. Simply amazing. Best ride ever. FastPass+ is a must. Hard to explain unless you experience it.
- Slinky Dog Dash: Super cool roller coaster at Hollywood Studios. The whole Toy Story section there is beautiful. Amazing set designs.
- Splash Mountain: A Magic Kingdom classic.
- Festival of the Lion King: Best show we saw. Animal Kingdom.
- Expedition Everest: The best roller coaster at Disney. Jack’s favorite ride. Great set to walk through while waiting in line. Animal Kingdom.
- Bippity Boppity Boutique: Not really a ride, but it’s a princess makeover experience. They’re not giving this one away, but I only have 1 girl, so…
- Tusker House at Animal Kingdom. Best food we had all week. Great buffet with really good characters.
- Cinderella’s Royal Table in the Castle at Magic Kingdom. Books up as soon as reservations become available 6 months in advance. Great experience. Princesses come to the tables.
- 50s Prime Time at Hollywood Studios. Sleeper pick here. Good comfort food and great milkshakes.
Our Hotel: The Art of Animation
- Overall highly recommended for young families
- Pros: Great value – low price compared to other on-campus resorts. Awesome pools. Cool set designs. Cool arcade. Good rooms, especially the family suites like the one we got that sleeps 7.
- Cons: Food wasn’t very good. Buses for transportation (no monorail). kids