Friday, 15 March 2013

Disney World & Magic Kingdom: a vacation guide (tips, tricks & secrets)

After several years of family vacations to Walt Disney World and the accompanying months of obsessive planning, we've started to feel like Disney experts!

I'm passing along what we've learned over the years to help you plan and get the most out of your Disney vacation.
Caribbean Beach Resort, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, family vacation

Where to stay

If you're planning a trip to Disney I'd recommend staying at one of Disney's amazing resorts rather than one of the other hotels nearby. They are slightly pricier, but the level of service is literally unbeatable - no-one on the planet does customer service like Disney does.

Themed resorts, unexpected luxuries, surprise extras, activities for the kids, and Disney cast members eager to assist around every corner. Plus, it's Disney - so every moment manages to feel magical.

And the convenience of staying at a Disney resort can't be overemphasized.

Disney's Magical Express will meet you at the airport, bring you to your resort, and deliver your luggage to your room, free of charge. Your room key is personalized (and a great little souvenir!) and is also your theme park ticket, your meal plan access, and your credit card for resort purchases. Every resort has a variety of options for meals right on-site, from sit-down restaurant dining to quick-service meals to cafeteria-style snacks and patio drinks. Disney's shuttle service runs constantly throughout the day with pick-ups throughout the resorts bringing guests to their choice of theme parks. In our experience, without ever consulting a schedule of any sort, we've never had to wait longer than fifteen minutes at the most for a shuttle to the theme park of our choice. And at the end of your trip the Resort Airline Check-in Service allows you to check your luggage and get your boarding pass right at the resort, bypassing airport check-in. Disney convenience at its best!

Walt Disney World resorts, beach, Florida, Orlando, family vacation

There are Disney Resorts for every family, every budget, and every lifestyle.

For our family, the Caribbean Beach Resort has always been the best choice.
beach, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, family vacation
We've stayed there every year since starting our family's Disney tradition, and for us it's absolutely perfect. Our boys are obsessed with all things piratey (like most little boys) - their bedroom is an Underwater Pirate Paradise, they love Peter Pan and Jake, one of their favourite movies is Pirates of the Caribbean, the playroom toy chest is full of pirate costumes and swordfights are constantly breaking out from couch-island to couch-island in the living room.
family vacation, Walt Disney World, Orlando, FloridaWalt Disney World, family vacation, Orlando, Florida

Barefoot Bay, beach, sand play, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, family vacation
The Caribbean Beach Resort is a two-hundred-acre tropical paradise on Barefoot Bay organized into six island-themed villages, each with their own pool and beach. White sand, clear water, cozy hammocks, lush palms, exotic flowers, winding stone paths and hidden gazebos for afternoon cocktails.

Caribbean Beach Resort, courtyard, kids, family vacation, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida
The central area of the resort is Old Port Royale (just like in the movie!), with a food court styled after a Caribbean village, a restaurant, cafe, indoor and outdoor seating, gift and souvenir shops, and an arcade.

Outside the pastel-coloured buildings is a large cobblestoned courtyard with a big central fountain. The path down the hill to the left takes you to the marina, where you can rent watercraft or bicycles for the day.

Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, family vacation, pool, swimming, Old Port Royale
To the right is the pool, themed after an old Spanish fortress with towers and tunnels and cannons and waterslides, and the shipwreck splash pad, a ruined pirate ship playground with waterslides and squirt guns and climbing structures and a big bucket that dumps water over little ones' heads. Two hot tubs and a large sunbathing area filled with lounges surround the pool and the cabana bar is just outside the gate.
Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, family vacation, pool, swimming, Old Port Royalewater, pool, kids, family vacation, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida
pool, water, kids, family vacation, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Floridawater, pool, kids, family vacation, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida

Past the pool the courtyard meets a meandering boardwalk with picnic tables overlooking the lake where you can see all kinds of water wildlife, followed by a footbridge across the Bay to Caribbean Cay, an island paradise for kids with playgrounds, walking trails, tropical foliage and cannons for playing pirate.

Pirates, pirate ship, kids, play, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida

You can upgrade to a pirate suite (a must!) complete with pirate ship beds, treasure chest dressers, a fridge fashioned out of a gunpowder keg, and oodles of pirate accessories for the little buccaneers.

There are other perks of being a resort guest not mentioned on the website or in your reservation package.

We were pleasantly surprised our first visit when we were handed pirate swords for the boys to play with in our pirate suite.

pirate costume, pirate makeup, Walt Disney World, Magic Kingdom, kids
The Pirates League! Arrr.
The week's unadvertised planned activities included pirate- and Disney-themed activities for the kids throughout the day; an after-dinner campfire and marshmallow roast on the beach every evening; and nightly outdoor movies in the courtyard by the pool, a massive projection screen set up by the water between the swaying palms and a Disney classic timed to finish moments before the massive fireworks show began. 

Absolute magic!

Magic Kingdom - tips & tricks

A trip to the Magic Kingdom is often a once-in-a-lifetime treat (or at the very least, once in a very long while) so it's important to get the most out of your visit - which means less time spent waiting in lineups and more time experiencing Disney magic, riding rides, watching shows and parades, meeting your kids' favourite characters, taking photos, and making family memories to last a lifetime.

If you're hitting the Magic Kingdom, you should probably plan for more than one day at the park. However, it is possible to do the whole park in one day if you plan it out properly - even with the massive New Fantasyland expansion. Grab a map ahead of time (available online, or Disney will send you one before your trip if you ask) and decide which rides are must-do's and if there are any that don't appeal to your family and you're willing to skip.

The best way to do the park is in a circuit from one side to the other - either starting in Adventureland and circling through Frontierland, Liberty Square and Fantasyland to Tomorrowland, or starting in Tomorrowland and circling back to finish in Adventureland. Either way works.

roller coaster, Walt Disney World, Magic Kingdom, ride
ride, water, Walt Disney World, Magic Kingdom
For any rides with the FastPass option, use it. (Unless the line-up is forty-five minutes or less.) Find the FastPass station, which will tell you the current lineup wait time and the FastPass return time. Pop your park ticket into the machine and it will give you a FastPass ticket; simply return to the FastPass line during the time window indicated and your wait time will only be five minutes. Pay attention, though: you can only have one FastPass at a time, so for those rides with a really lengthy return time (several hours later) you'll be unable to take advantage of the feature again until the time indicated on the ticket. It's well worth getting a FastPass for the popular rides like Splash Mountain, Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Space Mountain, which always have very long wait times; Jungle Cruise, which is a brutal lineup, very long and not a lot of moving-around-room; Peter Pan's Flight, which is often an incredibly and disproportionately long lineup; and any ride you plan to visit more than once - for us, it's Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin, our boys' hands-down favourite.

If you're waiting for your FastPass ride and don't have enough time to line up for another ride or don't want to be walking back and forth from one end of the park to another, there are a couple of attractions that don't have much of a wait time. The PeopleMover in Tomorrowland has virtually no lineup at all times as it's constantly moving and there's lots of cars - it also doesn't seem to be all that popular, in part perhaps because the lineup is somewhat hidden. Our kids love it, though. We'll do the PeopleMover three or four times in a row - literally step off, exit, enter, and step back on - while waiting for Space Ranger Spin.

splash pad, water play, kids, ride, Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World

The new Casey Jr. Splash N' Soak Station in the New Fantasyland area is a circus-themed water play splash pad where kids can splash around and cool off and parents can sit in the shade. And in Frontierland is Tom Sawyer Island, an entire island adventure playground for kids to explore and play.

Be sure to check the schedule of events before your Magic Kingdom visit (available online or at any of the resorts or theme parks) to plan your day around any parades or shows you're interested in seeing. The Main Street Electrical Parade and Wishes Nighttime Spectacular fireworks show are absolute can't-miss ones.

Wishes Nighttime Spectacular, fireworks show, Walt Disney World, Orlando, FloridaThe parade route is marked out on the Magic Kingdom map. Anywhere along Main Street or in front of Cinderella's Castle are always packed and you need to find a spot well ahead of parade start time at 9:00pm - further along the parade route you can usually squeeze a spot on a curb or sidewalk closer to parade start time, allowing yourself more time for rides. The best spot for viewing the fireworks is in front of the castle, but since the show is at 10:00pm, the majority of people who find a spot to watch the parade from this vantage point stay put until after the fireworks show, so unless you're willing to stake out a spot and stay there from about 8:00pm until 10:30pm, you may have to find another spot in the park to watch the fireworks. It's a spectacular, over-the-top show - it's amazing from anywhere. One year we grabbed dinner and sat down front-and-centre on the curb of Main Street directly in front of the castle and stayed there picnicing and playing from before the parade until after the fireworks, but we've found in years since that we can still experience both without taking nearly so much time out of our day.

Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, parade
We go during Spring Break, when the park is open later, so a second Electrical Parade runs at 11:00pm. Since half the park clears out to watch the earlier parade, we keep riding with much shorter line-ups right up until the fireworks show, then scoot around to watch the show from whichever bridge we're closer to, either Adventureland or Tomorrowland; this past year we sat by Prince Charming's Carrousel behind Cinderella's Castle and watched the show over the landscape of New Fantasyland.

Most guests leave after the fireworks, so for the remainder of the night there are virtually no lineups for any rides and by the time the 11:00 parade happens we can easily find a spot to sit anywhere along the route. Because the park is so empty for the last few hours of the night, we can usually do the entire park over again and our favourites several times. This past visit we hit Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin a dozen times in total!

Magic Kingdom, Fantasyland, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, family vacation
The New Fantasyland expansion has added quite a bit to the Magic Kingdom.

The expansion includes two large sections - Storybook Circus, an old-fashioned circus-themed area inspired by Disney's Dumbo movie, and the Enchanted Forest, a beautifully sculpted and landscaped area designed around some of Disney's favourite princesses.

Storybook Circus is filled with bright colours and big-top tents and is where the classic Dumbo ride has been relocated and expanded, with a very cool indoor playplace for kids to enjoy while waiting in line. The Barnstormer roller coaster is a fun ride for everyone, and a more little-kid-friendly ride for those who are a little overwhelmed by the bigger roller coasters.

The Casey Jr. Splash N' Soak Station is located here, too, an awesome circus-train-themed splash pad and water play area to cool off on a hot day or spend time waiting for your FastPass time.

Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Ariel, The Little Mermaid, Orlando, Florida, rides, family vacationThe Enchanted Forest is filled with sculpted stone walls and castles, landscapes and waterfalls and currently has a Little Mermaid section with Ariel's Grotto, the Prince's castle and the new Under the Sea ride, and a Beauty and the Beast area with the Beast's castle, the Be Our Guest Restaurant, Gaston's Tavern and village and an Enchanted Tales storytime with Belle. By 2014 another major new ride will open, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Trail roller coaster, as well as the Princess Fairytale Hall for Disney Princess meet-and-greets. The expansion is typically spectacularly Disney.
pirate makeup, pirate costume, Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, kids, family vacation
The Pirates League, Magic Kingdom, pirate makeup, pirate costume, Walt Disney World, kids, family vacation, Orlando, Florida
Magic Kingdom extras!
The Pirates League and the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique are must-do's for your little pirates and princesses. The Pirates League, located by The Pirates of the Caribbean ride, immerses little ones in a world of scallywags where they are sworn in as pirates, given a pirate name and a full pirate makeover and swag - they can even meet Captain Jack Sparrow and be in a pirates parade! The Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, located in Cinderella's Castle, lets little princesses-in-training be turned into their favourite Disney princess with a full makeover and accessories. This experience is an absolutely can't-miss memory-maker - but make reservations well in advance of your vacation; spaces are very limited and fill up months in advance.

Where to eat

There are a million places to eat at the Disney resorts and theme parks at a variety of price points, but in the interests of maximizing beach and theme park time I'd recommend one of the many quick-serve options rather than the table service or fine dining restaurants.

If you are staying at a Disney resort, the Quick-Service Meal Plan is the way to go - two meals (which include an entree, a side, a drink and a dessert) and one snack per day per person, plus an insulated refillable souvenir drink mug for each guest which can be refilled as many times as you like at the beverage island at the resort (coffee, tea, cocoa, iced tea, juice, pop - anything non-alcoholic is included). We've done the trip both with and without the meal plan and the plan is definitely worth it, both in terms of cost and convenience. The variety and quantity of restaurant options and meal options are impressive, food quality is great, and the convenience of paying for most of your meals when you book your trip and not having to carry around quite as much cash but just swiping your room card for meals is fantastic.

Some of our favourite spots:

Old Port Royale Food Court at the Caribbean Beach Resort - a few of our faves are the breakfast quesadillas and made-to-order omelettes at the Bridgetown Broiler, the Philly cheese steaks and specialty deli sandwiches at Montego's Deli, and the kids' burgers and fries served in a sandpail with a shovel (we always have quite a collection of beach toys by the end of the week!) at the Old Port Royale Hamburger Shop.

At the Magic Kingdom there are a zillion dining options. I've narrowed it down to the best in each land - again, we find the quick-service restaurants to be the best option because we don't want to spend half our day at the theme park sitting in a restaurant. The Tortuga Tavern in Adventureland is directly across from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride - our family favourite - so we eat there regularly. Quick-service Mexican food, casual Spanish style decor, lots of seating both indoors and out. Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn & Cafe in Frontierland is probably the best value quick-service option at Magic Kingdom overall - good food, lots of options and fantastic portion sizes - and has more seating, both indoors and out, than any other restaurant in the park. We usually hit the Sleepy Hollow restaurant in Liberty Square on our way out of the Haunted Mansion for funnel cakes and waffle sandwiches - hot and fresh and a delicious desserty treat. The Pinocchio Village Haus in Fantasyland is a regular stop - average food, but tons of outdoor seating right in the centre of Fantasyland with a view of Cinderella's Castle and Prince Charming's Carousel. In Tomorrowland we like Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe - lots of options and a ton of seating - and the Lunching Pad because of their amazing overstuffed specialty designer hot dogs.

We do a couple of longer table-service meals during our stay for some special "experience" dining.

The Crystal Palace on Magic Kingdom's Main Street is a breakfast tradition every year - an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet with every breakfast, pastry, and fruit option under the sun in a light, bright, airy atmosphere styled after the Hundred Acre Wood inside and an elegant Victorian home outside.

The Crystal Palace is a character dining experience - Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore and Piglet circulate throughout the restaurant and stop at each table to greet and hug little guests, pose for photos and sign autographs and there's a "Friendship Day" parade for kids to participate in with the characters every hour. We think this is the best of all the character dining experiences - the food is ample and delicious and there are lots of child-friendly options, the characters are all familiar, and with a location right in Magic Kingdom on Main Street there's no comparison for convenience and proximity to fun. Make reservations a few months in advance, though - spaces fill up fast and there's almost no chance of getting a table if you wait until you're at Disney to call.

The brand-new Be Our Guest Restaurant in the New Fantasyland is beautiful, and so typically Disney true-to-the-movie - the Disney Imagineers are truly incredible at making everything at the theme park movie-set perfect to the last detail - but though they advertise quick-service dining for lunch (it's table service for dinner) it's crowded beyond reason all day long, the lineups are absurd, and without a reservation it's actually impossible to get in and get a meal, even for the quick-service lunch. New Fantasyland is only just newly open, so while this will likely ease up in time and it's definitely visually spectacular, for now a visit to the Be Our Guest restaurant is not worth the amount of time it takes out of your day at the park.

restaurant, family vacation, Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida

The T-Rex Cafe at the Downtown Disney area is amazing and well worth a visit if you're heading to Downtown Disney or willing to take a few hours away from the resort and theme parks.

restaurant, family vacation, Orlando, Florida, Walt Disney World

restaurant, family vacation, Walt Disney World, Orlando, FloridaThe restaurant is filled with gargantuan lifelike animatronic dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures and flora and fauna and is absolutely over-the-top amazing. 

Diners are welcome and encouraged to wander around and touch and dinosaurs and take pictures.

Downtown Disney, Walt Disney World, family vacation, restaurant, Orlando, Florida
The service is fantastic, the food is excellent, the portions are generous, and there are lots of options for every taste. There's also a fun "paleo zone" outside the restaurant where kids can dig for dinosaur fossils and pan for treasure after lunch. Again, reservations should be made a couple of months in advance, and because you'll want to stroll around and take everything in it's better to plan to dine early - late morning for lunch, late afternoon for dinner - to avoid the crowds.

A Walt Disney World vacation is absolute magic for kids and adults alike. But armed with a little insider information and some planning ahead of time, you can make your amazing family vacation even more magical!

You might also like...
Making Memories
Spring Break family vacay