Disney World. Whether you whisper those two words or shout them from the rooftops, that name is sure to attract attention. For adults and children alike it instantly takes your imagination to a magical place, one where you get to walk among some truly iconic cartoon heroes.
While for the kids going to Disney World is total wish fulfilment, we grown-ups can quickly feel overloaded. The good news (there’s no bad news here!) is that you can squeeze some fantastic value from your trip, avoid feeling tired, jaded and "Disneyed out", and explore a whole other world. In any case, you can’t see it all in a day, even if you tried.
My wife and I went to Walt Disney World in July, with our super-excited 11 year-old daughter and 9 year-old son. It’s fair to say that at this age, keeping the kids stimulated and satisfying all of our different interests is a tall order. So we split our time between Disney World and exploring what else Florida had to offer.
But before I get to what those things are, I’ll give you some tips for enjoying a theme-park based family getaway.
Five top tips for enjoying your Disney World experience
My Tip number 1 for enjoying Disney would be: stay somewhere else! We rented a villa in Haines City, about 25 minutes’ drive from Orlando. Our home away from home had a relaxed feel, and a private pool, which is just what you need after a day’s fun and games. Plus, there was a Manny’s Chophouse just outside the gated community we stayed in, which serves amazing steaks as well as meals for little ones.
Tip number 2: Make use of the FastPass+ service. Everyone else has the idea to ‘get there early’, so you can bypass the queues for up to three attractions and shows you want to see the most. Plan your favourites ahead of time if you’re so inclined, or play it by ear and choose your ‘must-dos’ on the day.
Tip number 3: Stay cool. I mean that literally – a misting fan is essential. Buy these on-site at Disney itself, or from shops like Walmart or Target. Expect to pay more for Disney-branded fans, but they do last well. We found ours to be sturdy, and a blessed relief on hot days. Florida’s climate is subtropical, and is known for being prone to thunderstorms. Although we went in July, it’s worth visiting in the autumn if you can; it’s less hot and less busy.
Tip number 4: Take your own drinks and snacks. Prep sandwiches and finger food if you’re self-catering, and shop around at Target and Walmart for non-Disney branded items - prices skyrocket once you’re in Mr. Mouse’s domain. Bear the security checks in mind; you’ll be fine as long as you leave behind any glass containers, or any with straws and disposable lids. Be sure to cast your eye over the Disney security checks before you make your trip. There are plenty of themed restaurants on-site at Disney World, so by all means build them into your experience (make reservations first, though). Otherwise, keep the splurging for one-off Disney experiences and selected souvenirs,…which takes me to my next tip.
Tip number 5: Get some cool souvenirs. In pester-power paradise, it was Mum and Dad’s wallets versus the Disney merchandising machine. Although I succumbed a bit, I can tell you that leftover Disney Dollars are overlooked as gifts, especially if the kids want mementoes for their friends. Everyone loves a bit of foreign currency, and the designs change every year, making them very collectible.
Have your pearly whites ready for the PhotoPass snappers stationed around the park. You can view your photos online for up to 30 days after they’re taken, and you can download them at no extra cost. Downtown Disney is known for its array of interesting and unique keepsakes, so come here for a separate shopping trip, and save your energy for enjoying the rides and shows.
Exploring the rest of Florida
On your non-Disney days, there’s much to see and do. The Sunshine State of Florida is packed from top to bottom with theme and water parks; we visited Aquatica and had a great time – mainly on the rapids river ride.
The relatively new Legoland is a decent day out, too. Take your swimwear, as there’s a water park at the back of the complex, which allows you to cool off nicely!
The Kennedy Space Centre is, I’d say, Disney’s main rival for living out childhood dreams. It’s America’s portal into space, and you can learn all about the space programme and watch actual shuttle launches. We didn’t get the chance to see this, but launches take place every month; should we go back, we’ll check the schedule online ahead of time.
So far, so exciting. But it’s a good idea to vary the pace, otherwise you’ll come home feeling even more frazzled than when you left! Miami’s beaches are a must-see; have a wander along the iconic South Beach and take in the striking Art Deco buildings. It’s great for people-watching over a leisurely breakfast, and soaking up the pace of life.
We absolutely loved the beautiful Discovery Cove, which was by far the most serene and calm place we went to. We hired a cabana, snorkelled and swam with dolphins, which was an incredible experience. Even though it was activity-based, it was a much-needed time out for all of us, and a chance to enjoy the sunshine Florida is famed for.
Parting thoughts on Florida
Florida is home to some really quite unique and diverse nature, culture and history, so it’s worth stepping away from the theme parks to get a feel for the real Florida. If you only visited Central Florida you’d have a great time – but you’d also be missing out on some fantastic experiences. The children (and us parents) enjoyed meeting the dolphins in Discovery Cove as much as posing for pictures with favourite Disney characters.
That said, it’s a great feeling to answer the question "Dad, when are we going back to Disney World?" with one word: "Tomorrow".