A couple years ago I wrote about how our family of seven managed to stretch our dollar for an affordable trip to Disney World. I promised a follow-up post about how to enjoy Disney World with a large family, but life got busier and busier, and here, at long last, is that post.
With five kids under the age of seven at the time, our family actually ENJOYED our trip to Disney World – that’s some Disney magic right there, my friends! As I mentioned in my previous post, we ended up with a last-minute addition to our trip when a “short-term” foster placement became longer-term. So the ages of our kids at the time of our trip were 18 months, 4, 5, 6, and 6.
My face literally ached from smiling so much, we had THAT much fun! The kids were well behaved, we managed to avoid most burnouts and meltdowns, and we all had a blast. Here’s how we made the most of our trip.
Enjoy the Ride
As I explained previously, we chose to drive from Chicago to Florida to save money. But we also had a GREAT time during our drive! Here’s some of what made the drive into a fun road trip instead of simply a way to get from point A to point B:
- We drove through the night. While this may seem like an odd way to enjoy a long drive, it actually worked out really well for us. The kids slept through most of the drive making the journey much more bearable for everyone. Also, the nighttime driving gave my husband and I a rare long stretch of quiet time … we chatted, we took turns sleeping, we listened to talk radio and our favorite music. It was strangely serene and enjoyable.
- We let the kids watch all the Disney movies they could stand. Most families count down to their Disney trip by watching all the classics at home ahead of time. Not us. We stopped at the library on our way out of town and rented every Disney DVD available. The kids got their full dose of Disney, were familiar with all the characters once we arrived, and we had a fun and (mostly) peaceful drive.
- We played in the ocean. On our way home we took a short detour to stop at the ocean. It was a cool but sunny day and we played in the sand and splashed our feet in the water. Most importantly – we made memories! For some of our kids we didn’t know if this might be their only chance to see the ocean. We actually got to take a real ferry ride to get there, too, which was probably the highlight of the entire trip for our four year old son.
We broke up the drive with lots of extra fun stops – we stuffed ourselves at Cracker Barrel, walked the beautiful grounds of an art museum, and went hiking at a state park. The point is, there’s a lot of fun to be had if you slow it down and enjoy the trip.
Plan, Plan, and then Plan Some More
I got a few books about visiting Disney World from our local library and I read them each cover-to-cover. I took notes on which rides and attractions we absolutely wanted to see. Then I consulted with friends who’d recently visited. We used touringplans.com to plan an itinerary for our trip – including which ride to get on at what time. My good friend (and official Disney vacation planer – check her out on Facebook) pointed out that if I was planning a trip to Europe I’d read and plan, and getting the most out of Disney is really no different.
Plan Around the Lowest Common Denominator
Plan everything around the YOUNGEST member of your group. As you already know (if you have more than one child), the youngest calls the shots, and it’s no different at the “Happiest Place on Earth.”
The main key for us was to only go on rides that our youngest/shortest member could ride. She was only 18 months at the time of our trip, so we literally didn’t ride any rides with a height requirement. Yes, we had to miss out on some amazing rides. And yes, I know they have that switch-off thing. However, with the switch-off thingy where one adult stays with the kid(s) who are too short to ride, we found that our “taller” kids still weren’t old enough to ride alone so they often were required to ride right next to an adult, on a two-seater ride. That meant we’d have to go through the fast-pass line (which often had a 10-15 minute wait per trip) three or four times, taking one older kiddo at a time on the ride while the other adult waited with the other kids. It would have taken us an hour to get all the older kids a turn on a ride with a height requirement. An hour of one parent alone with the other four kids. An hour when we could have ridden two or three other rides (that didn’t have a height requirement). Someday we’ll go back to Disney World when the kids are older (and taller) and we can all enjoy Space Mountain together. Until then, we decided to stick to the rides we could all enjoy together.
We also tried to plan somewhat around our youngest’s nap and eating schedule. When we saw the slightest sign that she was starting to melt down we would all take a break for a snack or rest, which helped keep everyone hydrated, fed, and happy.
Use The Fast Pass System
I’m not going to explain Fast Pass – you can look that up on your own time. But it’s free and it’s well worth your time to book your fast passes before your trip. Fast Pass can be used whether you’re staying on or off grounds.
Stick to the Itinerary
As I mentioned, we created an itinerary for our trip (with the help of that Disney planner I plugged above). It included what time to arrive in the morning, and exactly what time we would get onto each of our rides. I thought this was totally over the top, but we decided to give it a try. By noon on our first day we’d practically walked right on to nearly all of our top rides while others were still standing in an hour-long line for their second ride. We used touringplans.com and I highly recommend their “Lines” app. There is a slight charge, but in my experience it was well worth it. You can create a complete itinerary before you go, and when you’re in the parks you can look up current wait times at rides anywhere in the park so you can tweak your itinerary as needed. For example, if your itinerary has you scheduled to leave the park for a mid-day nap, but you have a little energy left, you can quickly look up the wait times to see where you might want to head for one or two more quick rides.
But Be Flexible
Go with the flow! If you’re tired, take a break. If your kid is melting down, get them a cool treat. Be willing to go with the flow. If your kids have a favorite ride, find time to do it again. My kids’ FAVORITE ride was the highly under-rated carousel at Magic Kingdom. Who knew? I think we rode it three times.
Splurge Now and Then
Bring some extra money and don’t be afraid to spend it now and then. Our first day we went to Epcot Center and that night we did the world exhibit. After eating our way through several countries we happened to see several people with glasses of champagne. Mike and I decided to “splurge” and get ourselves each a glass. In a happy coincidence, the fireworks started RIGHT after we got our drinks. Our kids were mesmerized by the night show, and we had a romantic moment together under the fireworks (as romantic as it gets with five kids and a huge crowd surrounding you).
As a large family we’re all used to going without much of the time. Obviously we always have the necessities covered, but the kids don’t ask for special treats often, nor do Mike or I splurge on ourselves much of the time. It made the trip extra-special to be able to say “yes” more often. So when the mood hit us, we bought some small souvenirs and special snacks.
Let Them Take Naps!
I wasn’t sure how we would feel about leaving the parks every day for a nap after seeing how much each ticket cost! But everyone recommended it, and for good reason. We were the first in line every single day, which made for early mornings. We also stayed until closing every night because there’s something extra-magical about Disney after dark. That made for looooong days. Even though we were staying 20-minutes off-grounds, it was well worth the drive to get a few hours of down time each afternoon. And it just makes good sense to maximize your time at the park in the early mornings when crowds are at their lowest, and take naps in the afternoon when the crowds are at their peak.
Don’t Over Do It
We bought three-day passes. It doesn’t cost all that much more to add additional days, but we were on a tight budget. While we decided on three days at the parks originally to save money, we ended up realizing that three days was pretty much our limit. We took one day off in the middle for a fun day at the pool, which also gave us a nice rest. When the kids get older I look forward to spending more time exploring more parks. But with such little ones, three days was about all we could handle. We also didn’t bother with park hopper passes. Again, it saved us money, but more importantly it saved our sanity. There was no wondering how to make the most of our pass each day, no rushing and waiting to get on extra transit rides.
I can’t stress this enough – BE AT THE PARK WHEN IT OPENS IN THE MORNING!!! You’ll get an excellent parking spot, you’ll get a rare view of the park grounds with few people milling around, and you’ll get a start on the best rides before the lines are unbearably long. We were literally AT the front rope each and every morning before the park opened. It’s worth the early morning!
Jasmine is foster parent in the Chicago ‘burbs. She and her husband currently have seven kids living at home including their biological, adopted, and foster children. Follow Jasmine’s Facebook page Close To Home to see more of their everyday adventures.
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