disney world travel tips

A family holiday, five years in the making

I love Disney. The closest I ever got to being a collector was when I was at university and I wanted to own all of the (then) 40 animated classics, on VHS no less. I am probably one of few parents that actually says “hey, don’t you want to watch Frozen again?” to my son and have basically been force-feeding him Disney movies for the past year and a half (although he doesn’t actually take much persuading).

When I was pregnant, I came up with a plan. The year that Kai turned five, we would take him to Disney World, before he could outgrow the magic. It just so happened that this year – the year he turns five – I was attending a conference in the States, and so the plan actually came to fruition.

We ended up travelling to New York, Washington and Nashville before Florida and in the end we didn’t have much time to spend at Disney World, sadly. In fact, I can safely say that I spent three times as long planning as we actually did in the park. And it still didn’t actually go as I had anticipated, so I thought I’d share a few tips I picked up along the way. Perhaps they can help your dream trip run as smoothly as possible.

Plan, plan and plan some more

Want to dine with Cinderella in her castle? You better make that booking at least three months ahead of time. Looking to watch the fireworks from a boat on the lake? That’s not the sort of thing you can reserve a week ahead of time either. Do you want to go to one park for three days, or four parks for 10 days? Or if, like we had to, you’re squeezing your Disney experience into one sole day, which park should you hit? I pored over the official Disney website for hours and hours trying to decide which park to choose. They’re pretty smart and spreading out the attractions – the Star Wars stuff is all at Hollywood Studios, as is the Toy Story team (the official Toy Story Land opens on June 30th 2018). Nemo and Frozen – two of my son’s faves – are to be found at Epcot, while the classic Disney characters reside in the Magic Kingdom, along with lots of pre-schooler-friendly rides and of course the legendary parade. For most, it’s a once-upon-a-star-in-a-lifetime trip, so you don’t want to rock up at the gate saying “so, what should we see?!”

Get the app

These days there is an app for everything (seriously – I recently learned about RunPee, which tells you the best time to nip out of the movie theatre if your bladder can’t manage an entire movie. Which if you’ve had a couple of kids, is actually pretty useful). The My Disney Experience app is free to download, great for planning and invaluable while you’re in the park. It’s an interactive map with character greeting times and most importantly, up-to-date queue lengths so you can plan as you go. You can also make restaurant reservations and view all the pics Disney staff have taken throughout the day (presumably for those whose cell phone batteries have died). There’s free, fairly fast wifi throughout the parks, so you won’t need a local SIM to put the app into practice.

disney world children

Deep conversation with Pluto

Pack a picnic

The restaurants at Disney World are expensive. They’re expensive and not very good, unless you book a few months ahead for a proper sit-down restaurant. We simply grabbed a hot dog between queues (well actually, lunch turned out to be just another queue) and having polished off the overpriced, underwarmed sausages, my mum wiped her mouth and said “well, that was food.” I think she was actually being a little over-generous. But it is easy to avoid lining up to eat a crappy, expensive slice of pizza – bring your own picnic.

For some reason I had assumed you couldn’t bring your own food, but the guy in front of me looked like he had packed enough snacks for three days (or maybe three minutes if you have a son like mine). The only things you can’t bring are glass containers (unless it’s baby food) and booze. Booze is sadly in short supply at Disney World. From the park’s opening in 1971 there was no booze at all until 2012. These days you can get a well-earned beer at one of the sit-down restaurants – but you will probably have to book ahead for those.

Rent a stroller

I had ummed an ahhed about this for weeks before we left Cape Town. My son is four, but he’s the size of a six year old. He’s also not fond of walking long distances, but man he is heavy to carry around. Would he want to sit in a pushchair? Would he even fit? Should we buy a cheap one to take with? Rent one locally? In the end we did nothing until a day before we were headed to Disney World, when I mentioned the possibility of getting a stroller to him. I swear as we got off the monorail from the car park, he was more excited about sitting in a pushchair than he was about meeting Mickey. It was the best US$15 we spent that day (and you spend a lot of $15s at Disney World!) It meant that he had some shade, we had somewhere to balance our bags and bottles of water. It meant that he had somewhere to nap once the heat and the excitement got too much. And what it really meant was that we could fully enjoy our day at Disney World – without it, by 2pm he would have been miserable and wanting to go home and play Lego.

disney world travel tips

This face can’t stop smiling

Don’t underestimate the power of magic

I had planned our day around the rides I really thought Kai would most want to experience. It’s best to head to the most popular rides first, so we joined the queue for the fairly new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. It was not a good plan. We waited an hour to board, which Kai managed admirably, but I think it kind of put him off rides for the rest of the day. Oh, and it scared the crap out of him. He’s not even a big fan of swings and slides, so I don’t know what I was thinking. I was starting to wonder if, even after all those hours of planning, I had made the wrong decision on which park to visit when we walked past the castle and heard a fanfare. We turned to see Mickey, Minnie and the gang up on the stage. Kai was mesmerised as characters from movies he’d never even seen put on an all-singing, all-dancing show. And then Olaf the Snowman came out. I felt the collective joy of 200 parents as Elsa and Anna followed.

You see, for a four year old, that’s not an aspiring actor in a suit, that really is Olaf, having stepped straight from the screen onto the stage. At that moment, as I literally fought back tears of joy at the grin on Kai’s face, we scrapped the whole plan and dedicated the day to meeting as many characters as we could. It cost around R7000 for the three of us to go to Disney World for one day (and that’s before we’d eaten anything or bought the requisite mouse ears). But it was worth every hard-earned cent when, standing in the queue to meet Buzz Lightyear my four-year-old son turned to me and said “mummy, my face can’t stop smiling.”