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Team Schoegler_Disney World_hschoeglerWe recently returned from our second visit to see the Mouse and castle and once again had a terrific experience. My in-laws are Disney pro’s and we had the benefit of traveling with them for the first visit. This time though, we were on our own (with a little help from Tour Guide Mike) and found a few great tricks you might like as well. In no particular order….

DO get tips from others. Obviously, my list (while long) is not the be-all-end-all. I mentioned Tour Guide Mike above, and I would recommend the $20 or so for his advice. We used it to help map out which parks we’d visit when, as well as a few nuances about where to sit, things you might not know or notice otherwise, and general guidance. Also talk to friends who’ve been and find out what their ‘don’t miss’ list includes.

DO or DON’T use the Dining Plan. Trip 1, we used the dining plan. It worked and we thought we’d always get it. Trip 2, we stayed at the The Dolphin (great value, all perks of a Disney property except access to the dining plan) so we paid cash for all meals. Between the cost savings of the hotel and being able to choose what we ate, we felt like we saved more money without it. Here’s why: when you use the Dining Plan, it comes with certain choices. A lot of times, the food would go to waste. We didn’t need the sandwich, fries AND cookie. By paying for the food ourselves, we didn’t spend any more than we would’ve on a dining plan (spent a bit less in fact) and we didn’t let things go to waste. We were also able to eat wherever and whenever we chose. For us, no dining plan worked best.

DO pay extra for the Park Hopper. Yes, it’s an extra charge but the flexibility it gives you is priceless. On our last day for example, there were a few ‘must-dos’ at both Magic Kingdom (MK) and Epcot (EP) that we wanted to do before leaving. We started at MK, checked those off the list and then went over to EP and back to MK for the evening light and firework shows. I’ve also heard of people using the hopper combined with a Fast Pass (FP) to make the most of their time. Example: send one family member with all tickets into Hollywood Studios (HS) early in the morning to get a FP for Toy Story Midway Mania. Then leave, and spend the morning at another park returning to HS to use the FP in the afternoon. (HINT: if you want to ride Toy Story Midway Mania at all, plan to do something similar or plan to spend all day in HS. The FPs run out every day and it can be a 2-3 hour wait for the ride.) We hopped every day of our second visit, seeing at least two parks each day.

DO pay attention to Extra Magic Hours (EMH). But don’t sacrifice your day kid’s normal sunny disposition to get there. Epcot_night_hschoeglerEven arriving at normal park opening hours puts you at an advantage to all the late risers.

DO pay attention to where you think everyone else will be (if crowds matter to you). Example, unless it’s the only day you can go and you must see the New Years Eve Fireworks, don’t go to Magic Kingdom that day. Everyone thinks they must be there too and it is crowded. Like way crowded. We went there early for the EMH but left after lunch and went to Hollywood Studios. If you can, try to go where everyone else is not. Use this theory when it comes to “next-days” as well. While NYE was ridiculous, New Years Day was amazing at Magic Kingdom! We walked straight on to so many rides all day long. It’s common sense really, if everyone went to MK one day, they’re likely at a different park the next day. Take advantage of moving away from the crowd.

DO get a Fast Pass for those rides or experiences that are “cannot miss” on your list. However, pay attention to the wait time versus the Fast Pass return time. Several times, the Fast Pass return time was an hour or more away while the wait time was only 10 minutes. Just get on the ride immediately in that case. Remember, you can only secure one FP at a time. And we also noticed that unlike our previous visit where you could return with a FP for several hours after the designated window, you could only use the FP during the time on the ticket. HINT: you need everyone’s park entry ticket for a fast pass distribution. So, if you’re sending one person to get them, make sure he or she has everyone’s ticket with them. We made the newbie mistake of sending my husband with only his. Hopefully this hint saves you some time. 🙂

DO experience a character dining experience (or two). On each of our visits, we did one Mickey and Friends experience and one Princess experience. Here are the ones we’ve tried and our thoughts:

  • Tusker House (Animal Kingdom) – C and Goofy at Tusker House_hschoeglerbreakfast, lunch, dinner; photo not included. $$ Meet Donald, Daisy, Mickey and Goofy while enjoying world-cuisine. My husband and I both found food we enjoyed and the kids could select from their favorites like PB&J, corndogs, chicken strips, etc. Good price for the characters and it was one more thing we could do during the day inside Animal Kingdom. Tip: you get a photo with Donald and the beginning of the meal, but he doesn’t sign autographs.
  • Chef Mickey’s (The Contemporary) –  Chef Mickey dinner_hschoegler breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner; photo not included. $$-$$$ Meet Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Pluto. This is a good option that doesn’t require you to pay for a park pass. The food was good and there were many options. Unlike Tusker House, your photo at the beginning is with a Mickey Statue so you do meet and get autographs from all the characters.
  • Akershus Royal Banquet Hall (Epcot) – G with Mary Poppins_hschoeglerbreakfast, lunch, dinner; photo included. $$-$$$ Meet Cinderella, Princess Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), Belle, Ariel, Mary Poppins, and Snow White. This is a buffet and we dined at breakfast and were able to choose from a number of pastries and breakfast foods. The highlight is you get to meet some of the characters (Belle and Mary Poppins) you don’t meet at the Cinderella’s Royal Table option. It also gives one more reason to visit Epcot.
  • Cinderella’s Royal Table (Magic Kingdom) – G at Cinderella's Royal Table_hschoeglerbreakfast and lunch; photo included. $$$ Nothing quite compares to the wonder of dining inside Cinderella’s castle. Meet Cinderella, Princess Aurora, Ariel, Snow White and others as available (we also met Jasmine and the website lists Belle). This is a bit more expensive but definitely worth the price. Each child receives a wishing wand or sword (based on gender) and a wishing star. All meals are plated and adults are able to choose from several options. My selection was a divided plate with six-eight items! Our two-year old qualified as an “infant” which means we didn’t pay for his meal. However, they still brought him out a plate with two french toast sticks and then we shared from our plates.

DO book character dining and other dining reservations in advance. How far in advance? As soon as you are able. You can make reservations 6 months prior to the date of your visit. Mark your calendar, literally, to call and make reservations if you want to dine at Be Our Guest for dinner or experience Cinderella’s Royal Table. And DO plan ahead. Have an idea of your itinerary (which parks will you be at on what day). You’ll want to make your reservations based around your schedule rather than your schedule based around your reservations. Especially if you opt to not get hopper passes.

DO meet and greet the characters. First, buy or BYO an autograph book and pen. We purchased one fKs Chip and Dale_hschoegleror each of our kids as they wanted to meet different characters. This also makes a great souvenir! The best way to plan how you’ll do this is to grab a Times Guide as you enter the park. (Located just beyond the gates, they are a single sheet card always Ks with Alice_hschoeglerdisplayed with the four-color park guide/map.) The Times Guide tells when and where shows, parades, fireworks, etc. will take place but also lists which characters are in the park that day, where they are located and what times they are available. For our kids, meeting the real characters is a really big deal. We averaged meeting over 20 characters during each of our WDW trips. That said, maybe you don’t need to meet as many. Pick the one or two you need to meet and take advantage of the character dining experiences for the others.

DO allow yourself to flex and multitask. For example, if you want to experience “Enchanted Tales with Belle” and ride “The Little MerAriel's Underwater Adventure_hschoeglermaid – Ariel’s Underwater Adventure,” cross them off the list based on line length, wait times and FP availability. Don’t be set in stone on the order you do things. Also, look for opportunities to do two things at once. Example: while we waited in line to meet Merida, my husband stayed and ate a snack with our son while I took our daughter to ride the Tea Cups, which were right around the corner with no wait. This allowed her to check one of her must-do’s (Tea Cups) off her list while still moving us forward in line.

DO let yourself be a kid, experience the magic and create magical memories for your kids. Being Silly at Disney_hschoeglerThis is a time where we regularly participate in the imagination our kids are experience. Of course that is the “real” Tinkerbell! Of course Cinderella lives in that castle! Of course Mickey remembers you from dinner! Whatever it is they’re wondering about, support their imagination. From a grown-up perspective, take time to appreciate the logistics and customer service juggernauts that are Disney cast members. Really, there is never a worry about something going wrong when you’re in the Mouse’s house. They have it down to a T.

DO recreate our favorite Disney moment for your own children. Just do it quietly in case there are other children thinking the same thing standing on the bridge beside you. 🙂

Finally, here are a few random things we found to be very helpful across the parks:

Magic Kingdom

  • When you’re entering Magic Kingdom, look at the lines for both the Monorail and the Ferry. Both take you to the front gates but one will always be quicker based on what everyone else is doing.
  • There is a clean, large bathroom that is very under-utilized located behind the Cheshire Cafe (between the castle and the tea cups across from Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe).
  • Excellent menu option for an inexpensive quick-service meal with plenty of indoor seating is the Diamond Horseshoe. Located in Liberty Square, the guide says it is open seasonally. We enjoyed it over the Christmas/New Year holiday.Dumbo the Flying Elephant_night_hschoegler
  • The new Dumbo the Flying Elephant experience is just that. With two rides, the waits are manageable and many times absent. What you don’t see is that under the tent, there are circus experiences for your child to enjoy while you wait. Very cool!
  • Daisy, Minnie, Donald and Goofy are ‘hiding’ in the back of the park with short waits. Under the red tent in the new Circus area, this is a great location to meet the characters while most will wait at the front of the park to meet Mickey and the Princesses.
  • If you have a Jessie (Toy Story) fan, you won’t meet her at Hollywood Studios with the other characters, but you will over in Frontierland. Head over to Splash Mountain, under the railroad tracks toward the back. She’ll be there without too long of a line to wait in.

Animal Kingdom

  • Definitely use a FP for the Kilimanjaro SafariKilimanjaro Safari_hschoegler. We timed it with our Tusker House character meal. Right as we were going in to be seated, my husband went and secured the FP for us since it’s in the same part of the part (Africa). We were able to enjoy our meal with the characters and then walk over (and essentially right on) to the Safari.
  • On the Safari, ask if you can sit in the back row. This allows you to have an unobstructed view. Having sat several places, the back row gives the best views by far.

Hollywood Studios

  • Meet McQueen and Mater back in Streets of America.Meeting McQueen and Mater_hschoegler They don’t sign autographs (real cars can’t of course) but the pictures are great and you won’t have to wait two hours to meet these characters.
  • For a sandwich large enough to share, desserts worth drooling over and other snacks, don’t miss quick-serve dining at Starring Rolls Cafe between Animation Courtyard and Sunset Boulevard.
  • If you want to see Fantasmic, take everyone’s advice and get there 60-90 minutes ahead of time. The line will start to form on Sunset Boulevard. Jump in. If you’re ok with eating while standing, grab some pizza from the vendor along Sunset Boulevard and enjoy your meal while you wait. (Talk about multitasking!)
  • If you’re there at the holidays, definitely go see the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. Walk around and take it all in (including the snow falling from the sky!). These musically timed light displays put the ones you’ve seen on YouTube to shame.Osborne Family Lights_Hschoegler

Best Shopping – There are three large stores that offer the widest amount of merchandise around Disney. They are the Emporium on Main Street in Magic Kingdom; Mouse Gear inside Epcot; and World of Disney Store in Downtown Disney. My new favorite though may be the Big Top Souvenirs under the blue big top in the Circus in the new Fantasyland inside Magic Kingdom. My daughter purchased a stuffed Dumbo and Mom stuffed animal set there that we didn’t see in any other location. They also have a large dessert bar in the center of the tent.

Best Entertainment

– Magic Kingdom:

  • C as a plate in Enchanted Tales with Belle_hschoeglerPhilharMagic – it’s really a 4D experience with a short wait (and FP if needed) that gets you out of any weather elements you need a break from. A favorite of everyone from our 2 year old to 35 year old.
  • Enchanted Tales with Belle – Definitely worth the wait if you are visiting with kids. You enter Belle’s house but end up in the Beast’s castle by walking through a magic mirror. (Very cool!) There are a few main parts that they will assign to children but after that, they’ll ask if anyone else would like a part. Be sure that your kids raise their hands then so they have an opportunity to meet and have a photo with Belle. (Our two year old did this and he was a Plate. 🙂 Very cute and very good ‘part’ for him.)Pete's Dragon_main street electrical parade_hschoegler
  • Main Street Electrical Parade – all your favorite characters and princesses illuminated with colorful lights on this twice a night parade. This is a don’t miss for our family.

– Animal Kingdom – Festival of the Lion King. We saw “Finding Nemo – The Musical” during our first visit and passed for our second if that’s any indication.

– Hollywood Studios – Fantasmic. That said, I recommend itFantasmic Finale_hschoegler for an older group. My children had to close their eyes through a large portion of it. No sense putting fear in their heads before bed at the “happiest place on earth.” Similar to Finding Nemo in AK, we passed on “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” and “Beauty & The Beast – Live on Stage” during our second visit.

– Epcot – IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth. This is a large fireworks show. While it is beautiful and something I recommend not missing, don’t watch it if your kids are not fans of loud booms. Fireworks aren’t for everyone.

I hope these tips help you have a magical time!