We are a Disney family. I freely admit it, I've bought into it: the movies, the television, the toys and books and theme parks, hook, line and sinker. Ol' Walt ain't losin' any money over here at the Iapalucci house, that's for sure.
I have always been a fan, to a certain degree. One of the first movies I can remember watching was The Fox and the Hound. As a kid, Disney World held a mystical, magical appeal; the two or three times we travelled there as a family were highly anticipated and thoroughly enjoyed, but I was much older before I became aware of Disney as a brand.
Disney has it's signature all over EVERYTHING. Aside from the obvious toys and apparel, there's diapers and cell phones and haute couture, and you'd be hard pressed to walk down any aisle in the supermarket and not see some grocery item emblazoned with one character or another. Even items that you don't realize are Disney... they own multiple networks, film studios, publishing imprints, music labels, software development companies....if you have the inclination to avoid the brand, you have your work cut out for you.
I don't seek out the brand in my daily life, nor do I avoid it. I freely admit that in choosing items and entertainment for Max, I prefer Disney over other kids' brands; the movies tend to have less "gross-out" humor than, say, your typical Dreamworks film (hello, Shrek), and the characters and shows are generally more wholesome and less irritating (I will take Phineas over Spongebob any day of the week!)
Anywho, here's where Walt & Co. have really won my heart: VACATION. I have to say, the Europeans have the right idea. They all get two weeks vacation every year, and by God, they all take it. Why don't Americans do that? Why isn't it mandatory? Vacation is so rejuvenating and necessary, I am sure productivity and happiness in the workplace and mental well-being would increase tenfold if everyone would just take a bloody vacation, and I don't mean a three-day weekend where you tackle the honey-do list. VACATION.
There are many many many people who would consider a trip to Walt Disney World to be the very last thing they want to do on vacation. That's okay, I get that. But it works for us. The moment I book the trip, Adrian visibly relaxes. It's the one place we travel to where he will leave his cell phone in the hotel room. At least twice a week, leading up to a trip, he asks me what the countdown is, what dining reservations I've made, what special thing we'll do this trip. Max, I am sure I don't have to say, loves it, every bit. I love the planning, and the satisfaction of watching my obsessive planning pay off when my family has "the best vacation ever, Mom!" Someday, I am sure we will move on and do other trips, trips geared towards older kids, even trips away from our kids, but for now, Disney World is our thing.
We were lucky enough to discover our Disney addiction by way of a free trip, courtesy of my parents, in honor of their fortieth wedding anniversary. Max was twenty months old, and I don't think we would have taken him at such a young age if we had been planning and paying for it ourselves, but, you know, for a not-quite-two-year-old, he was a champ. He slept when he needed to, no matter where we were or what we were doing (Hoop-de-Doo Revue? Check. Fireworks? You bet.) he gave us the requisite bit of adorable video footage of meeting Mickey for the first time, he bonded forever as double-stroller pals with his cousin Allison. Since that trip, in January 2007, we have traveled back to WDW four times, and made one trip to Disneyland. Ridiculous? A little. Excessive? Probably. So shoot me.
A lot (okay, like, six) of people have asked me, over the years, for my Disney tips. I don't think any of those people actually read this blog, but, I feel like thinking about Disney right now, so that's what I'm gonna write about, 'kay?
January 2007: Trip courtesy of Mom and Dad. 5 days, 4 nights at Saratoga Springs Villas (Deluxe hotel), including Dining Plan and Park-Hopper tickets. Three major lessons learned on this trip. In no particular order:
- Go at off-peak times. Seems like a no-brainer. Do I believe you should take your children out of school for a couple of days, or even a week, to take them to Disney World during off-peak times, saving yourselves not only lots of dollars, but also hours spent standing in lines and waiting your turn? YES I DO. Okay? I said it, right out loud. A lifetime memory of a great family vacation versus the stress of making up work at school, and dealing with irritated teachers? Worth it, in my opinion. Of course....we are homeschoolers.....so feel free to tell me to shut up now.
- Stay onsite. You might be able to save five or even fifteen dollars a night staying at the local Hampton Inn (And I HAVE stayed at that Hampton Inn. And it's quite nice!) But unless you plan to spend a lot of time literally sitting around your hotel room (and who goes to Disney World to do that??) stay at a Value resort on the WDW property. You can often (see: Go at off-peak times above) get these rooms for $89 a night, and the themed pools and dining areas are SO worth it. Staying onsite means you can get the dining plan. The dining plan...is a very good value. Unless you are one to pack your lunches into the park, and eat fast-food dinners every night. That's not us, and sampling the various restaurants around the WDW property is a HUGE part of our enjoyment. PLUS: If you are a) patient and b) willing to travel either at high peak or way off peak seasons, you can often get FREE DINING when you book a resort package. Disclaimer: I have never stayed at one of the Value resorts, but I hear good things about them, particularly that the theming is wonderful.
- Travel with eight or more people. You may not be able to name seven other people that you want to take a vacation with, but if you can, Disney offers some really fun opportunities for "Grand Gatherings" of eight or more. My favorite of the Grand Gatherings has since been released to the general public, meaning you can book it for any number of people, and that's the Pirates & Pals Fireworks Cruise. Talk about feeling special and unique at a place where several tens (or hundreds, depending on your willingness to take the kids out of school) of thousands of people are simultaneously vacationing. You meet in a random conference room at the Contemporary Resort, and mix and mingle with Captain Hook and Mr. Smee while enjoying some dessert/snack type items (the food is NOT the reason to book this excursion). Some very hilarious pirates come and lead you, parade-style, down to a boat, aboard which you set sail for the Seven Seas Lagoon, take in the Electric Light Parade (the same so-craptastic-it's-fabulous one they've been showing since at least 1983) and participate in all kinds of high-seas-hijinks before having one of the best seats EVER for the Magic Kingdom fireworks display. To top it all off? Peter Pan is waiting for you back at the dock. Like I said, you can now book this excursion for any number of people; we took Adrian's cousins on it last winter, and they said it was the best thing they have ever done at Disney, and they have been there over thirty times.
- Dress nicely. I'm not talking Sunday best, and by all means, wear the most comfortable walking shoes you own. But you are going to be taking a lot of photos. Wear something decent, without holes or stains or tacky slogans (Plus, I really hate seeing schlubs walking around the park in ratty t-shirts and droopy drawers. Detracts from the magic, people, seriously.)
September 2008: Our Tenth Wedding Anniversary celebratory trip. Land/Sea Package: 5 days/4 nights at the Beach Club (Deluxe hotel), followed by 3 nights aboard the Disney Wonder.
- September is a fantastic time to travel to WDW. Very, very quiet. We were there in the middle of the month; the only thing I would do differently is push it back a week or two to make sure to be there during the Food & Wine Festival at Epcot.
- Wear the buttons. You can get a free Birthday, Anniversary, First Visit, Family Reunion, whatever button at every park and resort. Lots of people wear them, so you don't get huge perks (although I guess you never know what might happen!) but I proudly wore my "Happy Anniversary" button all over the place, and got lots and lots of well wishes. And once, while purchasing something at the Emporium, the white-haired gentleman behind the counter answered a phone call and said, "Madam, I believe this call is for you," and held the phone out to me. On the other end? Mickey wishing me a happy anniversary. Silly? Magical. (I also like to make a point of giving my good wishes to anyone I see wearing the buttons, or the bride and groom Mickey ears, or whatever. There's nothing wrong with sharing the love.)
- When you book the Land & Sea package, you book the cruise portion first. (You have the option of choosing 4 nights at sea and 3 nights at the park, you also have the option to cruise first, then go to WDW). You pick your stateroom: we knew we wanted to have an outside room, so we booked a "Family Verandah", which has an enclosed deck with huge porthole, rather than a classic railing-type set-up, made me feel more comfortable cruising with a three year old). The room we booked was by no means the most expensive option on the ship, so I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that the list of hotels we had to choose from were all "Deluxe" - we ended up paying far less per night for that Deluxe room than we would have if we were not cruising. We chose the Beach Club because we heard they had a fantastic pool - and we were not disappointed. Best pool on Disney property.
- Character meals are a really great way for kids to meet characters. No standing in line. Character meals are not generally more expensive (there are a few exceptions), although the reservations are a little harder to get.
- Take a break in the middle of the day. Go back to your hotel for a swim and/or a nap. Do not, whatever you do, attempt to power through the day if you have any expectation of having a nice dinner or making it to the fireworks. EVERYONE gets tired at Disney, not just the kids.
- Wait to cruise until your child is three and potty-trained (the two criteria for being allowed into the kids' clubs). The kids' clubs are awesome, and do not cost any extra. You drop your kid off, they give you a pager....it's a win-win. Babysitting for kids under three does cost extra, and there is a limit to how many hours you can use during the cruise.
April 2009: Max's 4th Birthday trip. This was the year of "Free Admission on your Birthday". It was also the year that Disney was desperate to get people into the parks and offered "Buy Four, Get Three" packages (early in the recession, I guess people were cutting out their WDW trips, but if the record, capacity crowds they've been having this past week are any indication, I doubt we'll be seeing this incentive again any time soon - too bad!). 8 days, 7 nights at the Caribbean Beach Resort (Moderate) with Pirate room upgrade, meal plan, Magic Your Way base tickets. Traveled with pregnant Patricia and 4 year old Allison.
- Late April is a pretty decent time to travel as well. It has to be late April, after the majority of spring breaks have occurred, and it has to be before schools start letting out in May. Max's birthday is April 27, so we were perfectly poised to take advantage of this quiet window.
- You never, never know what magic you might have bestowed upon you if you just ask. Patricia and Allison's room was initially in a whole separate part of the resort than ours. She casually mentioned to the cast member checking her in how nice it would have been for Allison to be near her cousin. As simply as that...she was upgraded, at no additional charge, to a Pirate room around the corner from ours.
- You will not miss anything if you take your kids back to the hotel in the middle of the day and let them swim and/or nap. It is, actually, essential. The parks are most crowded after lunch, anyway.
- You've got to listen to your kids. About everything. And by that, I don't mean, "Mom, Mom, buy me that! Get me this!" I mean. "Mom, I'm tired." If your kid is in the middle of Disney World telling you they are tired, or they have to go to the bathroom, or they are hungry or thirsty....you'd better believe they are EXTREMELY in need of rest/bathroom/food/drink. What kid wants to miss out on Disney World to take a nap? If they are telling you....you've already reached critical mass, and a meltdown is not far away. Forget your agenda, and attend. You'll all feel better, and you will avoid being one of those families that is screaming at each other in the middle of the happiest place on Earth.
- Do not, I repeat, DO NOT put your trendy aluminum water bottle in the backpack with your camera and iPod.
- Do not be afraid to act like a kid. Relax. No one knows you. One of our favorite things to do in lines is have face-making contests. Ugly face, scary face, sad face...whatever you can think of. It makes the time pass, it keeps kids from whining...and it makes the people in line around you smile, too.
- When you stay onsite, you are entitled to use the Disney transportation (buses, usually, although a few of the Deluxe resorts (Grand Floridian, Polynesian, Contemporary) are serviced by the Monorail). We do use the buses, on occasion, but if you are creative and plan your meals well (and have a car) you can avoid the crush for the bus at peak times (like park closing) that can make your day end on a less-than-high note, if you are tired and dealing with exhausted children. Heading for the Magic Kingdom? Book lunch at the Wilderness Lodge. You can park at the hotel, enjoy your lunch, take the launch to the Magic Kingdom...and then at the end of the day, join the relatively few Wilderness Lodge guests waiting on the dock, enjoy a relaxing boat ride, then find your car and zip back to your hotel with ease. If you are a resort guest, you can park at other resorts and the theme parks for free.
- Pack dry clothes, ESPECIALLY SOCKS, for your kids in your day bag. There are a surprising number of opportunities for kids to get wet at the parks. Dry socks for the whole party might not be a bad idea. I can stand a damp t-shirt for a little while, but walking around in wet socks...ugh.
- When traveling with others...it is absolutely okay, and possibly essential, to split up occasionally and do your own thing.
- I really like to book a character breakfast for the last day. It makes the leaving...easier. I really like the one at 1900 Park Faire, which is inside the Grand Floridian, a destination in and of itself. Chef Mickey at the Contemporary is great, too.
June 2009: Disneyland. Anaheim Sheraton (off-site), 5 days of Park-Hopper passes (part of an unbelievable, buy 2 get 3 free days of park tickets. That, combined with the free trip to Anaheim - Adrian had to take a state-sponsored class - made this trip impossible to pass up, despite the fact that we had literally just been to Disney World).
- Pace yourself. I was newly pregnant with Milo on this trip, so newly pregnant that I was still hiding it from Max. It made for some interesting conversation about why I all of a sudden "didn't like the teacups", even though I had been riding them with abandon just eight weeks earlier at Disney World. But five days to do Disneyland is a luxurious amount of time, especially in mid-June when it was not too crowded, and still really cool (I ended up buying us all sweatshirts - silly me assumed California would be hot in June!) Being pregnant made me look around for other, less ride-oriented activities, and we ended up having a really great time exploring all the nooks and crannies while waiting for Daddy to get out of class so Max could go on the more thrilling rides. This was the trip when Max got into collecting autographs, which has continued to be a great source of fun.
- If your child is too young to remember your cell phone number, write it somewhere on their person. Make them a badge or a sticker (putting it somewhere out of the way, like their armpit, will prevent it from getting caught up on ride harnesses AND prevent creepos from learning info about your children) with their name, your name, and your phone number. Hell, write it right on their leg, under their shorts, with Sharpie. I also like to take a picture of my kids first thing every morning (it doesn't have to be weird, just pose them somewhere at the hotel, or waiting for the bus, or at the park entrance) so that you have a record of what clothes they are wearing that day in the event you need to describe them. You'd be amazed at how easy details like what color shirt your kid is wearing escape you when you're panicking. Finally, AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, train your kid to call out YOUR NAME if you get separated. Yelling "Mom! Mom!" ain't gonna help, tons of kids are doing the exact same thing. Terrifying true story: Max and I got separated on Tom Sawyer Island in Disneyland, a huge area with endless tunnels and secret entrances and exits. I was in a total panic. We were reunited when I finally heard an entire chorus of people calling out "Jennie! Jennie!".....I've never burst into tears before that many strangers before (I blamed the pregnancy hormones).
- If you do find yourself at Disneyland, don't skip an attraction just because "they have that at Disney World". Trust me, they are all different, even if they look the same from the outside.
October 2009: Caribbean Beach Resort (Pirate Room) (Moderate). Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party (separate ticket event) plus one day, one park passes. Pregnant, traveled with Max, Gran, Allison, Aunt Katie and Rebecca.
- This was a fun little trip. Niece Allison was turning five, and her baby brother had been born just a month before. Ordinarily, Max and I would have traveled to Atlanta for her birthday party, but instead, I asked her mom if we could spirit Allison away to WDW as a surprise. Gran came along to lend a hand, and Katie decided it was a great time for Rebecca's first trip. What really made this trip possible, from an economic standpoint (given that we'd "done" Disney twice already in 2009!) was an email I got with an "exclusive" offer for a $99 a night Moderate resort. I am a firm believer in signing up for every Disney mailing list you can find, and, if you are really serious about making the trip, go on their website and plan a trip, going all the way through the booking process to the point where you actually pay anything. Do this a couple of times. I do believe that Disney collects this information, and, the longer you hold off and "toy" with you plans, the more likely you are to get a great offer in your inbox. It can't hurt, right? Anyway, I also already had, in my possession, two one-day park passes from a trip that I took chaperoning Katie's chorus many moons ago, which added to the affordability. We knew we were going to go to the Halloween party at Magic Kingdom on our first day. Technically, the party starts at 6 and goes until midnight, but a little known secret: they start letting party guests in as early as 4 pm, to avoid a bottleneck at the gates. So we didn't bother going to another park that day, and just relaxed at the pool and made sure the kids got a big nap....and then we still got to spend seven hours in the Magic Kingdom, all for the price of the Halloween ticket (which was about thirty bucks each less than regular park admission, at least back then). The next day, we went to Animal Kingdom, which we figured would be the next most appealing park for our age kids. It worked like a charm, especially for Rebecca, who didn't know what she was missing, and even Allison, but I did have a pang in the moment when Max realized, "Wait, can't we just stop by Epcot? Can't we just run into the Studios real quick?"
- Don't get stuck in Frontierland when the parade is coming through. That is all.
- We were fortunate to get adjoining rooms. This was really handy when dealing with multiple kids who were on different nap/sleep schedules.
- It is possible to enjoy Disney while pregnant, it really is. I was six months pregnant with Milo on this trip, and so, I didn't get to ride the teacups. You can find, on the Disney website, a list of attractions that you should avoid if pregnant (or if you have a bad back, or heart problems, or whatever). I was prepared, in advance, for the things I wouldn't be able to do, and I was also able to make an educated choice about other things (I DID go on the Safari, although I might not have had I been earlier in my pregnancy). Yes, sometimes I was the designated bag/glasses/water bottle holder and stroller wrangler, but that was okay :)
December 2010/January 2011: Iapalucci Family Vacation, traveled with Sam & Helen, Mikey & Janine, Shelly, Stacy, Janet & Mike etc. 8 days/7 nights at Port Orleans, Riverside (Moderate) with dining plan and Park Hoppers.
- Ah, Disney at peak season. Definitely NOT my favorite, but we were traveling with a big group, and this is when they could all go. We made it work. The number one thing I have to say about going at this (or any peak) time: GET TO THE PARK AT OPENING. Because it was the holidays, the parks were all operating on extended hours, and with the extra magic hours, this meant on some days the Magic Kingdom was opening at 7am. Where were the Iapaluccis? AT THE GATES. One morning, we were the second car in the parking lot. The family who beat us there? WAS EATING CEREAL IN THEIR MINIVAN. They wanted it more than we did, if that's possible. Walking into the Magic Kingdom at 7am, when it's not even fully light yet, is magical all by itself, but riding every ride without waiting in those first two hours was amazing. By 10:30 am, just at the park was starting to fill, we had two dozen rides under our belts and were ready for a nice breakfast, or an early lunch, or a swim, or to switch parks...I cannot stress it enough: GET TO THE PARK AT OPENING.
- I will never, ever go to Epcot on New Year's Eve again. EVER. You would think that the $7-8 price tag on most drinks there would prevent people from getting too wasted, too early in the day. You would be wrong. We actually saw a fight break out. In Disney World. We had a lunch reservation in Italy that day, the whole group we were traveling with, and that was lovely...but we should have called it a day, then. The Future World attractions all had lines of over an hour, and World Showcase was a madhouse. We gamely made it through Mexico and China, before conceding defeat in Germany. The best decision we made all day was to pack it in, and go back to the hotel. If we had stayed....we probably would not have been speaking to each other by the end of Japan. We went back to the hotel, had a rest, did some laundry while having a swim, and spent the evening at the food court at Riverside, where they had some special kids activities going on, and music in the lounge. By 9:00, Sam, Helen, Mikey, Janine, Shelly and Stacy had all joined us, and we toasted the New Year with several half bottles of red wine before calling it a night. It was well before midnight when we turned in....but then we were also at Magic Kingdom by 7am on New Year's Day, while everyone else was sleeping off their hangovers, so it was a win-win, as far as I am concerned.
- Once again, you never know what magic might come your way if you but ask. We did the Pirates and Pals Fireworks Cruise again this trip, and discovered that Pirate Patch, who was hilarious and awesome, was again assigned to our cruise....but we were not on his boat! Adrian was determined that his cousins needed to enjoy our original Pirate, so he asked....and they were happy to reorganize four other families so that our party of twelve could stay together, and be on Patch's boat. Magical.
- Our neighbors and good friends happened to be visiting WDW at the same time. We purposefully did not tell the kids, in case we were never able to meet up, but it came to pass that we were in Animal Kingdom at the same time. "Max, who is that little boy over there waving at you?" "It looks like Carter.....it IS CARTER!!!" Animal Kingdom was packed, and we were hardly able to "do" anything, but the kids didn't notice, they had a blast playing with each other in The Boneyard. Now, it's not likely that you will find yourself in WDW at the same time as your kid's best friend without actually planning it that way...but don't underestimate the place for providing magic and fun in unexpected places (and don't forget that something may seems incredibly awesome to your kid, that's no fun for you. There is a tiny plastic playground underneath the train station in Frontierland, near the exit for Splash Mountain - I assume it's there to entertain the kids who are too small or too scared to ride the log flume. Max spent half an hour there on this trip, we had to drag him away....and he kept asking to go back. It's seriously tiny, like the kind of thing you might find in a cheap daycare center. Go figure. He's also happy to stand and watch the model train display in Epcot's Germany for at least half an hour, if not longer....lots longer than I myself am interested).
- Children under the age of three are generally frightened by characters, at least the big plush ones. It's sometimes less overwhelming for them to see the characters at meals, rather than in the meet and greet scenarios, so if you've got to get that photo of your shy kid with Mickey...I recommend breakfast at Chef Mickey's, rather than standing in line at Town Hall.
- Fantasmic, Fantasmic, Fantasmic. It's so worth it. We held off on Fantasmic for many trips. because I kept reading about how scary it was for young kids. Nah. It's no scarier than your average Disney movie. Do the Fantasmic dining package, where you eat in a select Studios restaurant and then get reserved seating for the show, it reduces your wait time significantly and they are decent (not the best) seats.
- Max does not like parades, so we find that parade time is a great time to jump on rides. This is especially key at peak times like Christmas/New Year's. But we did take the time out this trip to watch one of the Castle Forecourt shows, and we were not disappointed. Really great and entertaining production, if you like that sort of thing. Lots of bang for your character buck.
- Another tip for peak time travel: We hyped Max up in advance for doing a lot of walking. He was five and half on this trip, and we did not rent a stroller for him until the fourth day. Milo, just under a year old at the time, spent the entire trip in a ring sling. We were able to move SO MUCH FASTER and EASIER through the ridiculous crowds because we were not wrangling a stroller. By the time Max broke down and asked for one, we were past the holiday and it was much easier to maneuver.
We are headed out to WDW again in just under a month, and I am sure I will have many more experiences and tips to share when we get home. At least, I hope so. We always say, if we're driving home from Disney World feeling like we saw and did everything...then we know we don't need to go back.