How to have a great trip to Disney World

How to have a great trip to Disney World
Yes, I know that's not Disney World. That's Hogwarts, baby!

I meant to write this post a while ago, but, alas, I forgot. Thanks to Shannan Younger for reminding me :)

My family traveled to Orlando for a week this past November. Before the trip, I was a mess. I'm like a linen suit; I don't travel well. I was sure that everything would be a disaster and that I would spend the entire trip worried about losing children and dying in plane crashes. I did worry about both of those things (plus drowning), but I also took time to have (what?) fun.

A little background. John and I went on the trip with our two kids (ages 5 and 3), my brother and his family (also with two kids, ages 4 and 2 1/2), and my mom and dad. So yup. that's four kids five and under, and six adults.

I can take no credit for the planning. I give all those kudos to my mom and my brother. I just showed up and did as I was told. And the trip worked out brilliantly. We not only survived, we had a great time; and we're talking about doing it (or a similar trip) in the not-so-distant future.

So here are my Disney World tips:

1. Stay off campus. We did not stay on the Disney property. We actually stayed at a Marriott time share on the same grounds as the J.W. Marriott and the Ritz Carlton. The place looked like, as my son declared it when he first stepped foot onto the property, "paradise."

Residing off campus was great for a lot of reasons. Here they be:

  1. It was cheaper and more spacious. Each family had a two bedroom condo in stead of a hotel room for less than we would've paid on the Disney property.
  2. It was not crowded. This may have had something to do with the fact that we were there on an "off week (there really are no off-weeks in Disney World)," but we pretty much had the pool to ourselves every afternoon. We weren't fighting for parking or for deck chairs.
  3. We could get a breather every day. Being at Disney World (and its surrounding parks) can take a lot out of you. It was nice to be able to retreat to a place where every surface was not stamped with The Mouse.
  4. We were not tied to the Disney food and restaurants. I know that it sounds nice and easy for Disney to provide all your food for you, but it's not that tasty and can be expensive (we spent the entire week citing our friends' horror story of a shoddy steak meal for two adults and two kids where only one person was drinking and the tab ended up being around $300). Some of our favorite moments of the trip were finding delicious places to eat in the greater Orlando area (which I'll tell you about in a minute).

2. Seek out good places to eat. I know I'm fixating on food. We like food in our family, good (not necessarily expensive) food. My brother is Mr. Research and spent much of his downtime scanning Yelp for some of the top rated places to eat. He found some absolutely great restaurants.

  1. Padrino's Cuban Bistro. We literally went here three times in four days. I like to think that the management is sitting around wondering where their new regulars have gone. The food is to die for, and so is the Miami Vice cocktail, of which I may have had a few.
  2. Tijuana Flats. This is kind of like the Mexican version of a Buffalo Wild Wings, but I mean that in the nicest possible way. The food was great, the atmosphere was fun, the price was right, and the Cookie Dough Flautas are the business.
  3. Yellow Dog Eats. OK, story time. Our flight back home was around 4 PM on a Thursday and we decided to go out for lunch. My dad subscribes to the notion that if you're not early, you're late (the apple doesn't fall far from the tree in this case), so he wanted to be at the airport 2+ hours in advance of our flight. My brother (who didn't get the "let's arrive early" gene) decided to take us on a long drive to Windermere, Florida so that we could eat at Yellow Dog Eats. The entire time, I could feel my dad getting nervous. I could feel me getting nervous too, especially when I saw that the road to the airport looked like the outbound Kennedy on a late Sunday afternoon.But, alas, we reached the (very crowded) parking lot of Yellow Dog Eats, preparing ourselves to shovel whatever food we could find down our gullets and get the hell out of there. On our way into the restaurant, we passed a group of three guys. One of them stopped us and asked, "Wait. Are you Bears fans?" My sister-in-law happened to be wearing a Bears T-shirt (even though she's actually a Vikings fan). We were, like, yeah. Then the guy asked, "Are you from Chicago?" Yeah. And then he was all, "I'm Jarrett Payton." And then we talked and became best friends for the time that we were all standing in that parking lot.One thing Jarrett Payton did say was that Yellow Dog Eats is amazing, and Jarrett Payton was not wrong.  I had the "Club Elvis," because sometimes you need to eat a pulled pork sandwich covered in bacon and smoked gouda.

3. OK, enough about food. You want to know about the parks.

  1. Hollywood Studios: We went there on our first day and it rained constantly. We had fun, though. We got there right around when the park opened, but we were too late to nab Fast Passes for the Toy Story ride (which was something we had been advised of). But since the line for Toy Story was "only" 65 minutes, we decided to be regular and wait it out. 65 minutes was a bald-faced lie. It was more like 85-90. And the ride was just meh. The best part was the animatronic Mr. Potato Head in the waiting room. My daughter was scared shitless by this ride (the first one we went on) and she was ruined for any indoor rides for the rest of the trip. Including "It's a Small World."Star Wars: This nonsense was worth the price of admission. The Star Tours ride is super fun, and we never really had to wait long on line for this one. My son built himself a lightsaber, even though we never arrived early enough to make it into Jedi training camp. I guess this is the price we paid for staying off campus.The Great Movie Ride: This one also terrified my daughter. What you think will be a lovely journey through happy film moments quickly devolves into a Jimmy Cagney shootout and, well, Alien.The Muppets 3D movie thingy was fun, but just know that these "experiences" are kind of a dime a dozen here. We also went to the Shrek 3D situation at Universal Studios and I had no patience for it. You've seen one, you've seen 'em all (this goes for a lot of the rides at these parks, too). For my money, I'd pick the Muppets over Shrek any day, though. So if you're going to see a 3D show, see this one.

    Twilight Zone Tower of Terror: My son probably could've handled the ride itself, but he was freaked out by the Twilight Zone movies shown on the way up to the ride.

    Animal Kingdom. When we arrived, we went right to the safari ride, which was really very cool. My daughter was terrified by the live Nemo show, so she and I ended up riding the TriceraTop Spin over and over and over until we nearly collapsed from the excitement of it all.The Dinosaur ride was cool, but very similar to the E.T. ride at Universal. We rode the Kali River Rapids a few times, but that ride did not compare favorably to a similar ride at Universal. I guess here's where I should mention that I really loved Universal. We'll get to that in a moment.

  2. Epcot: We only went to Epcot one night, and just walked around the "World." Some of us drank beers in every country; I won't say who.
  3. Magic Kingdom: About six months before the trip, my mom booked us brunch at Cinderella's castle. That was a good time and totally worth it. We got to meet not just Cinderella, but also Aurora, Snow White (I almost wrote "Snow Wight;" it's time for you to return, Game of Thrones), Ariel, and Jasmine. Plus the kids got wands and swords and my daughter got to spend most of the meal on the floor hiding from those scary princesses.Beyond that, I was not a huge fan of the Magic Kingdom (though my sister-in-law was the exact opposite; she loved it). It was just too crowded, and the lines were too long. We had been spoiled going to the other, less crowded, more spread out parks in the days before.

4. OK, Universal. I LOVED Universal. John, my mom, and I took our two kids on Sunday when the other kids weren't feeling well and my dad and brother wanted to go golfing. We had a really fabulous time.

  1. Harry Potter. HARRY POTTER. I love Harry Potter. And Universal has done a great job with its Harry Potter world. There's butter beer (yum) and Diagon Alley and Hogwarts itself and just everything you could possibly want out of a makeshift Harry Potter world in the middle of hot Florida. My kids loved the Hippogriff roller coaster. We went on it about four times.
  2. Jurassic Park. One of the cool things about the Universal Island of Whatever It's Called (Universal is split into two halves), is that you go from world to world and each little area has its own flavor. The Jurassic Park area feels like Jurassic Park. There are tropical plants and thatch-roofed buildings. And also the most terrifying ride I went on all vacation -- the pterodactyl ride. I asked the guy working the back of the line if it was scary, and he told me it was a baby ride. What he didn't tell me was that my nearly-three-year-old daughter would be seat-belted into a swaying chair in front of me, just out of my reach. I spent the entire ride just waiting for her to try and climb out or for the rusty looking tracks above us to give way.
  3. Dr. Seuss World. When the One Fish, Two Fish gives you any instructions, DO NOT FOLLOW THEM. They lie. There's a song that tells you when to go "up, up, up" or "down, down, down." If you listen to what they say, YOU WILL GET DRENCHED.
  4. Cartoon Land. Speaking of drenched, every ride at Universal is like a more-heightened version of a Disney ride. The Dudley Do-Right falls ride is a crazier, wetter version of Splash Mountain. The Popeye and Bluto rapids ride will get you so wet that you'll be drying off for days.
  5. And that's just Universal's Islands of Adventure. Over on the other side, there's the Simpsons nonsense (complete with Moe's Tavern), the E.T. ride, the Woody Woodpecker roller coaster that my kids loved, among other things. We probably, definitely should've made two days out of Universal.

5. Randomness.

  1. Bring a stroller. Or buy a cheap one when you get to Florida and pay it forward by leaving it in one of the parks on your last day.
  2. Bring your own snacks and water. That's allowed. I was kind of shocked by that. I'm so used to "no outside food and beverages." But that could be because I'm mostly only going to movie theaters.
  3. Buy or bring a rain poncho. It rains a lot, plus those come in handy for all the water rides. I don't care how dorky it made me look. I was dry, damn it.

Ah, what else? I suppose I should mention that we flew Southwest and paid to have early seating, and all of that worked out well. Really well. We boarded the plane armed with Kindles and iPads and headphones. Everyone was quite well behaved, even John.

 

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