Friday, April 4, 2014

Planning a Disney World vacation with kids - The Next Level

Ok. So I wrote about the basics of how we plan our trips to Disney World and you got all excited and booked your trip. You have plane tickets, a hotel reservation, and you're ready to get there! But what will you do once you arrive? How should you plan your days with the kids? I'm so glad you asked, because we like to plan our days well before we go and maybe our strategy will work for you, too.

One of the criticisms of the MagicBands is that allowing you to plan so many things in advance takes the spontaneity out of your trip. Though I don't think that the MagicBand inherently pushes "over planning," so much as facilitates it for the chronic overplanners like myself. One visitor said "I don't want to pick what park I'm going to be in on a specific day in advance." If that's your philosophy as well, you should probably quit reading here and have a super, spontaneous vacation! Otherwise, proceed to the next level of planning.


There are so many parks and things to do and keep track of, we decided early on that it was best to gather all the info ahead of time instead of trying to figure it all out once you get to the resort. Actually, I used to fly by the seat of my pants, but then Jon converted me on our honeymoon and I've been a pretty maniacal planner on all our subsequent WDW trips. In fact, I think I've now officially surpassed him in planning mania...

On my first trip to Disney World (as an adult!), I went with friends and we met up with some of their family friends who took a WDW trip every year. I remember thinking they were crazy for having dining reservations ahead of time. But after that trip, I realized that WDW has way more shows, experiences, and destination restaurants than I'm used to at Disneyland and that it can definitely be necessary to plan ahead if there is anything in particular you want to do. Dining reservations can be made up to 180 days in advance, and the very popular restaurants often book up fairly immediately. Plus, after you've been to WDW once, you know what you really want to see and what you can probably skip.

On our flight to WDW for our honeymoon, Jon broke out an Excel spreadsheet of all the park hours and showtimes for the things he wanted to see. I made fun of him and then ate my humble pie as we consulted it constantly during our trip. And now that's totally how we roll.

+Make A Spreadsheet
I wish the My Disney Experience site let you view and plan your vacation the way we like to see it, but it only collects the reservations you make and lets you view by type or day, rather than giving an calendar overview of your whole trip as well as resort offerings during your stay (like park hours and entertainment). So for now, we do it ourselves, the old school way.

Once we know the dates of our trip, we make a spreadsheet with a column for each day of the trip and rows for each park at the bottom (these days, I'm loving Google Docs so I can share the spreadsheet with Jon and access it online). We also talk about where we want to eat. Who am I kidding, we talk about that constantly anyway...

As soon as the park hours are published, we put them in for every day of our trip, including any Extra Magic Hours which are exclusive to hotel guests (these are noted in parenthesis next to the regular park hours.) Then we can start planning how we'll spend our time each day.

Here's how the spreadsheet looks, with a column for each date and the parks at the bottom with their hours stretching across each date.

You can also see rows for AM, Lunch, PM, and Dinner. We've always found that we like to visit one park in the morning and end the day at another park. On our honeymoon, we ended up coming back to the hotel mid-day for a nap and a shower (the humidity, ugh!), and usually grabbed lunch in the quick-service food court there. On our trip with Alice, we planned to come back to the hotel for her mid-day nap and then walk over to Epcot for our afternoons and evenings. That plan worked great, except for the part where Alice refused to nap. We still enjoyed the downtime, though. This time, we're still planning to do two parks a day, but we'll skip the hotel interlude and just go straight from park to park. We'll take some rests throughout the day and the kids can nap in their strollers, if they need to (I can hear future-me laughing/crying as I type)!

Doing a different park in the morning and afternoon also lets us take advantage of both morning and evening magic hours in the same day, if available (no single park will offer both AM and PM magic hours on the same day). By checking the park hours, Extra Magic Hours, and entertainment schedule, you can best organize your visit and make sure that you don't miss anything you want to see. 

Since we don't stay at one park all day, we're pretty strategic in the way we plan our days and which parks we choose to visit when. 

+ Choosing Parks
Hollywood Studios is a fun park, but most of the attractions here are for the bigger and braver kids (Studio Backlot Tour! Rockin' Roller Coaster! Tower of Terror! Star Tours!). We opted to skip it last time because it's not super interesting for toddlers. Though Alice will likely grow tall enough by the time of our trip to allow her to ride a big chunk of the attractions with height requirements, she is not the bravest or most adventurous 40-inch-tall person. So, since we'll have two little ones on this trip, we're planning to spend our time at the other three parks. 

The Magic Kingdom needs no explanation. There is no shortage of magical experiences for every age. We typically devote three A.M./P.M. blocks there. We tend to focus on the things we can't do at Disneyland, or that have interesting differences, but we can't resist our favorites like small world, Peter Pan, Dumbo, etc. This time, it works out that we're planning to spend a morning and a full day here. And because of the way our trip sits over the weekend, we won't be able to see the Main Street Electrical Parade, castle show, and fireworks unless we squeeze in another extra evening chunk on our last night. It's ambitious, but I think it will be worth it.

Animal Kingdom is one of our favorite places to play. It is really a beautiful and amazing park with so many unique opportunities to experience and learn about animals. Disney has done an incredible job of designing the animal environments and enclosures to virtually disappear into the surroundings, so you feel intimately involved in your animal encounters. There is even a petting zoo, though it features less exotic breeds than you'll see elsewhere in the park (think goats, sheep, pigs, donkeys, cows).

We love to get to the Animal Kingdom first thing in the morning, and we definitely try to take advantage of any Extra Magic Hours during our stay, as the animals are more active early in the day and this park closes earlier than all the other parks. We also like to hit this first thing on our first play day, and generally like to plan one more morning during our stay. We find that we're usually able to accomplish a lot in one morning.

This park is incredibly kid friendly; whether you are baby-wearing, pushing a stroller, or holding hands with a preschooler, all will be able to enjoy the animals and the wonderfully themed environments and area entertainment. All ages are welcome on the Kilimanjaro Safaris as well, though it made me a little nervous to hold a squirmy toddler in my lap while we bounced around in an open vehicle with enormous wild animals literally an arm's reach away. I think I will make sure Ivy is attached to an adult via a baby carrier this time...

For kids under ten, The DinoLand U.S.A. area features The Bone Yard, an interactive play area themed like a fossil dig complete with a real dig site. We also love the shows at this park, including the Jammin' Jungle Parade, Finding Nemo - The Musical, Festival of the Lion King, the Flights of Wonder bird show, and all of the character meeting spots. Bigger and braver kids should not miss Expedition Everest and the Dinosaur ride. There are lots of great restaurants as well, we like the Flame Tree BBQ, Yak & Yeti Cafe, and the Tusker House (though we haven't been since it switched to Table Service).

Epcot is probably our very favorite place to play. We plan at least three blocks of time here, usually in the evening. Future World, the front half of the park with all the futuristic attractions and 1980s architecture, usually opens at 9am. The World Showcase doesn't open until 11am, though, which is the back half of the park around the lagoon, featuring pavilions for 11 different countries - Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, the United States, Japan, Morocco, France, UK, and Canada. So we tend to play somewhere else in the morning, and then head to Epcot in time for a 2pm reservation for a late lunch. The World Showcase pavilions have some really great restaurants, you can eat and drink your way around the lagoon all day (which is basically what the Food & Wine festival is!). Alice already likes a wide variety of cuisine, and I think she is going to have much more fun on this trip trying new foods and treats at each country.
We also love the area entertainment and character meeting spots in each pavilion. You can Aladdin and Jasmine in Morocco; Anna and Elsa in Norway; Belle, Aurora, and Marie (Alice's favorite!!) in France; Three Caballeros Donald in Mexico; Mary Poppins and Alice in the UK; Mulan in China, Snow White in Germany. There is a British Revolution band in the UK, acrobats in China and France, awesome Taiko drummers in Japan, mariachis in Mexico, a mime in Italy, a fife and drum corps and the Voices of Liberty a cappella group in the American Pavilion. You can pretty much guarantee that there will be something fun to watch while you eat your regional treat!
The pavilions also have Kidcot "fun stops" where kids can meet someone from the host country, learn to say 'hello' in their language, and do a coloring activity. On this trip, we'll definitely get Alice and Ivy an Epcot Passport, which each country will stamp for you as well. I know Alice will really enjoy that and it will give her a great little taste of world travel. Each pavilion also has great shops featuring all kinds of things from the host country, always including regional snacks. This is a fun place to let kids shop for souvenirs, and to find things to share with friends and everyone else back home (great gifts for house & pet sitters!).

So over the three blocks of time we spend at Epcot, we make sure we squeeze in all the Future World attractions that we love (Figment! Spaceship Earth! Ellen's Energy Adventure! Living with the Land! The Living Seas! Test Track!) and then we just work our way through all of the World Showcase pavilions and eat and drink all the yummy things. We also try to see the Illuminations fireworks show each night, if we can keep the kid(s) happy enough to stay out until the 9pm show time. 

Last Time/This Time
Last time, we did:
  • 2 AM blocks at Animal Kingdom
  • 3 blocks at Magic Kingdom (2 AM, 1 PM) 
  • 3 PM blocks at Epcot
This time, we're doing:
  • 2 AM blocks at Animal Kingdom (with 1 Extra Magic Hour)
  • 3 blocks at Magic Kingdom (1 Extra Magic Hour AM, 1 full day) + 1 bonus late-night block
  • 3 PM blocks at Epcot
  • 1 full day at the water park

+ Advanced Dining Reservations (ADRS)
The parks and resorts have a ton of really great places to eat, from fun snack counters, to excellent quick-service options, and amazing table-service restaurants. Dining reservations for the table service restaurants can be made up to 180 days in advance, and some of the most popular options book up very quickly. Most restaurants will still take walk-ups, but you may experience a considerable wait (which eats into play time, and does not work well for us with small, hungry children). You can make your ADRs on the My Disney Experience website, or at the WDW dining website, or by calling (407) WDW-DINE (939-3463).

I used to just eat whatever was nearby when meal-time hit, or planned our attraction route in the general direction of wherever sounded good to eat, but I soon realized that if I wanted any hope of enjoying some of the more exciting options, we'd better make reservations.

One table-service meal a day is about the right number for us, though table-service meals are still very time-efficient options. We like to have groceries in the room (we're getting them delivered this time), especially healthy breakfasts and snacks (and beer & wine!). We like to eat a light and healthy breakfast while we get ready in our room before heading to the parks. Once we're on the go, we might grab a breakfast pastry or treat that we can all share. We also like to get pastries from the boulangerie in Epcot's France Pavilion at the end of the night and take them back to our hotel to enjoy for a breakfast treat! We plan on a mid-morning lunchy-type snack as we play in the parks. We make our Epcot lunch reservations for 2pm, which is late, but gives us enough time to spend the morning at one park and get over to Epcot. We like to eat lunch at the table-service restaurants because they are less expensive than the dinner menus! Then we can eat a light dinner, or graze as we play.

This approach keeps us from spending too much of our days sitting down at restaurants, and lets us visit more eateries and taste more things while eating less quantity over all. It's also a lot cheaper than ordering three full meals a day for all four of us.
Last Time/This Time
With Alice, we ended up doing four sit-down meals at table-service restaurants during our park days. We canceled our fifth and last reservation, because we didn't think Alice would be able to keep it together but that was because her eating issues were preventing her from eating enough over the whole trip. These days, Alice is usually a very polite and pleasant dining companion and eats a great variety of food and cuisines. I think she'll enjoy eating at the different restaurant environments, instead of just relying on quick convenience food the whole time. Ivy loves eating just about everything and sits very nicely at the table, so I think we'll be able to enjoy more sit-down reservations on this trip.

This time, we have seven total reservations; 1 breakfast, 3 lunches, and 3 dinners. On two of the days, we have two reservations in the same day; a lunch and dinner, and breakfast and dinner. It seems like a lot of restaurant-ing, but I think that's because of the context of the parks. Any other vacation would be full of restaurant eating, but I think that I still tend to imagine a Disney vacation as mostly playing and eating on the go. I do think it will be nice to have some breaks built in to sit down and rest and relax and enjoy an interesting meal in an unusual environment. I love that Disney World restaurants all feel like a different experience. The menus and environments are so unique that you don't feel like you ate every meal in a different fast-food joint, even if you never sit down at a table-service restaurant.

For this trip, I am SO excited that we were able to make reservations at two of the most popular restaurants. They are both at the same park, so we ended up making both for the same day and will be spending a full day eating royal meals at the Magic Kingdom. We'll have breakfast that morning at Cinderella's Royal Table inside Cinderella's castle. Our reservation is for before the park opens, so we'll be able to enter the park before the day's guests and take pictures on Main Street and in front of the castle without a ton of people in the background. And that evening, we'll have dinner at the new Be Our Guest restaurant in the Beast's castle. I cannot wait, I am so very excited. We haven't told Alice about either of these restaurants or reservations, and I'm thinking of some fun ways to surprise her to add to the magic.

There are so many places to eat and we certainly haven't tried them all. Here are some of our favorite places to make ADRs, places we're excited to try on this trip, and spots we want to try some other time:

Animal Kingdom & Animal Kingdom Lodge

Sanaa - Indian/African cuisine, with animals grazing right outside the window. Best enjoyed before sunset, so you can actually see all the animal action (we did dinner here last time just as the sun went down, we're looking forward to lunch this time!).

Boma - An African buffet at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Delicious food with a higher price point, but no view of the animals. Worth the trip at least once, especially with older kids and/or adults.


Akershus Royal Banquet Hall - Though I've had enough Norwegian food to last me about a lifetime, this restaurant does a great princess character breakfast before the World Showcase opens. We're forgoing it this time, in favor of some other options, but I don't doubt that we'll be here on one of our next visits. Especially if Anna and Elsa ever start hosting!

Biergarten - An Oktoberfest-style buffet in the Germany pavilion. Communal tables with a polka band and giant beers. We had so much fun here last time, we can't wait to go back. We love it on the first day of our trip, to really kick off the vacation feeling.

Chefs de France - a French bistro-style restaurant in the France Pavilion. We're excited to eat here and give our little Francophile a taste of the Paris life.

Coral Reef Restaurant - A restaurant where every table has an aquarium view.

Le Cellier - A steakhouse in a wine cellar in the Canada Pavilion. Delicious beer cheese soup and pretzel bread!

The Garden Grill - This restaurant rotates, and characters come by your table while you eat. I ate here on my very first visit to WDW and thought it was so much fun. I think there are more exciting places to eat, but for a casual sit-down with high-impact, this is a good bet!

Magic Kingdom

Cinderella's Royal Table - A restaurant INSIDE Cinderella's Castle, the iconic centerpiece of the Magic Kingdom. Make your reservations as soon as the 180-day window allows. If you make a reservation before park opening, you will be able to enter before the day's crowds and will have a very rare opportunity to take photos on your way to the castle without anyone in the background.

Be Our Guest Restaurant - A restaurant inside the Beast's castle, with tables inside the iconic ballroom, the Rose Gallery, and the West Wing. You can walk through each dining room, as long as you don't disrupt anyone's meal! This is a quick-service restaurant for lunch (reservations not offered), but the wait times can be so long you may not make it inside. Make dinner reservations as soon as the 180 day window allows.

Hollywood Studios

50's Prime-Time Cafe - Just like eating in mom's kitchen, complete with character actor wait staff who you'll swear are just like your extended family.

Sci-Fi Dine-In Restaurant - You eat in a car parked at a drive-in! Especially for those of us too young to have grown up doing this regularly, and those who wish they still could, this is a super fun treat.

Downtown Disney

Raglan Road - A fun Irish pub, with live music and Irish dancers that kick up their heels right on top of the tables, at the top of the hour. Alice has been pretty into Irish dancing lately, and Jon and I always enjoy a good pub and a pint!

Other Resorts

Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show, Polynesian Resort - Disney's very own luau. We've never been because our kids are too young to make the late showtimes and high prices worthwhile, but I think it would be lots of fun to do when they're older.

'Ohana, Polynesian Resort - A fun character breakfast, and a Hawaiian-style feast at dinner. Jon's always wanted to go here and we want to look around the Polynesian, so we're planning to ride the resort monorail loop and walk around the Grand Floridian before strolling over to the Polynesian for dinner.

Artists Point, Fort Wilderness Lodge - We had a nice dinner here with our local family members on our last visit. I would definitely plan on a meal here if we were staying at this resort.

California Grille, Contemporary Resort - Largely regarded as one of the best restaurants on the property. A great option for a top-notch meal or a special occasion.

Chef Mickey's, Contemporary Resort - A fan favorite for character dining buffet breakfasts, with views of the monorail passing through the hotel.

Victoria & Albert's, Grand Floridian - I understand this meal can cost upwards of $500 with wine pairings, but gets rave reviews. If you are looking for something very fancy and memorable, for a romantic or special occasion, this would be a great spot. Arrange for a babysitter!

There are so many more, and this doesn't even cover any of the great quick-service and counter-service options. Read through all the options - but not when you're hungry! - and see what sounds fun to you and your family's appetites!

Once you've planned out your days and made your ADRs, I like to fill in our shared calendar (we use iCal) with all the park hours, our AM/PM blocks for each day, and our meal reservations. I also make an itinerary document with ALL of our travel information, including flights, hotel, ground transportation, etc. Even though Disney makes it easy to find a lot of this info in one place, I really like having a hard paper copy with me to travel, so that I can see everything at a glance, offline. I usually send copies of this to our family as well, so they know where we'll be and have all the details in case of any emergency.

I've gotten some ribbing for using this format for our family's personal travel, but I created it and used it in my professional capacity where I booked a fair amount of travel for my bosses and teams and now I just can't travel without it.

Here's what the template looks like. I just pop in all the relevant info and add as much detail as necessary.

If you'd like to use this template for your own personal travel itineraries, you can download a copy of the Excel file here

Now, we're really ready for our trip. Everything has been booked and reserved, and we just have to count the days until fun! Later, I'll share some of the ways that we help Alice get ready and excited for the trip, some ways that we make a little extra magic on our trips, and some things we do to try to make traveling with little kids a little bit easier.

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