By Rachel Hoeing

We took our first family trip to Disney World in October a few years ago and I can honestly say it was one of the best weeks we have spent as a family! My mom was recovering from chemotherapy, and this was exactly the “magical” experience she needed in her life. My children were six and four, which were great ages for our first trip. My father and sister also joined us. So, we had seven people on this vacation. My goal in today’s blog is to share with you what worked for us.

Every family has different priorities when going on vacation, so some of you may have had a totally different experience. If so, I would love for you to share your advice below. I can say that we did not encounter any problems on the trip and it was relaxed and enjoyable for everyone, so use what you can and I hope my advice will make your tip planning a little easier. Be sure to log in tomorrow for Part 2 of this blog which will include tips for each theme park!

We chose to buy a six-day park-hopper pass. This means you can visit any of the four parks – Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios as many times as you wish during those six days. You can also split days up and visit more than one park on any given day. This is also nice because you never know which park your family will like the best and where you may want to visit again…

#1 – I think the single most important factor when planning your Disney trip is deciding what time of the year to visit.

We went the last week in October. We did not stand in long lines at all. One day we did stand in line for about 20 minutes for a ride that we just had to do one more time and unfortunately did not have a “F ast Pass” (I’ll explain more about those later). Other than that, we never waited much more than five minutes. The weather was in the 90’s all week, so we wore shorts and were able to swim in the pool at our rental home. You will need to factor in weather and crowds when deciding when to go, and decide what you can tolerate. According to a fabulous book titled PassPorter’s Walt Disney World that some friends gave me, the best times of year to visit are January and February (not including President’s week), the end of August (although temperatures are hot at this time), September, October, November and December (with the exception of any holiday weeks). For more tips on this topic, read our previous blog here.

#2 – Stay on property or off?

Again, there are pluses to both. When I went as a child, we stayed on the property, but with seven of us on this recent trip, we wanted to be able to all stay together and wanted plenty of room without spending a lot of money. We rented a home in the Windsor Palms neighborhood, which is a vacation resort in Kissimmee, Orlando . The house we rented was clean, had a well-stocked kitchen, and a pool. It took us five to ten minutes to drive to the park each morning. We were able to park very close and walk right in. The only park where you need to take a monorail is the Magic Kingdom.

Another plus to staying in a house was that we came home for dinner every day but one. With the ages of my children, I knew they might not last all day. We would arrive as soon as the parks opened and then head home around 4pm. My dad cooked dinner for us every night. (Isn’t he the best?!?!) We saved a ton of money and did not have to deal with overly tired, cranky kids. One day we did do a marathon day at Magic Kingdom where we stayed from open to close and had a blast. We also had the option of going back in the evenings after dinner at the house to see parades or shows. We did this a few nights, too!

If you do decide to stay on Disney property, be sure to read our blog about Martha Nichols, Disney Planner for Aladdin Travel. She can help you plan your entire Disney Vacation and receives her commission from Disney, so you do not pay anything out of pocket! This is a fabulous way to go, especially if you have never been to Disney World before.

#3 – Food

If staying on the Disney property, you can sign up for a meal plan, which many of my friends said worked out well for them.  Since we were not on the property, we ate a quick breakfast at home each morning, and then packed a cooler with drinks and snacks. We bought lunch at the parks most days and did pack a lunch from home for a few days as well. The meals are definitely on the expensive side, so the more food you can bring with you, the better. I will admit that most of the lunches we had were just OK. Although, the dinner we had in Magic Kingdom was fantastic.

#4 – Character Meals

This is one where I am sure many people will disagree with me. We did two character meals – one was Donald’s Tusker House Breakfast in Animal Kingdom and the other was the Princess lunch in Epcot at Norway (this one was just for the girls in our group). Honestly, I probably would not do the character breakfast again. Here’s why – we saw Donald, Goofy, Mickey, etc. at the character breakfast and although it was a great start to our week, we ended up seeing all of those characters again throughout the rest of our week. The breakfasts are not cheap, and I would have rather used that money on something else. BUT, and this is a big but, if you are going to do the meal plan, the character meals are great. And another but – if you are going to be in Disney during a busy time of year, the character meals are a must because the lines you will have to wait in to actually get an autograph from the characters will be out of control. On the other hand, I definitely thought the Princess Lunch was worth the money because you will not see princess throughout the park and will not be able to get pictures or autographs unless you are at a princess lunch/breakfast.

#5 – Magic heights – 40, 44, and 48 inches.

If your children are close to, but not quite at these heights yet, I personally would wait a little longer to book your trip. Again, just my advice, but my daughter was exactly 40 inches at the time of our trip. She was four years old, and since she was 40 inches tall, she was able to ride every ride that she wanted without being turned away for being too short! My son was exactly 48 inches, and six years old. He likes the more dare-devilish rides, and he also was able to ride everything he wanted. (Shoes do make a difference if your child is close to the cut-off!)

#6 – Fast Pass

I did not understand this whole concept at first. I thought it was something you had to buy ahead of time. No, nothing like that – it is just plain and simple AWESOME. The Fast Pass is a way to kind of “save a spot in line” for some of the most popular rides. Let’s say you know that everyone in your group wants to ride Space Mountain, but when you get there, you see that it is a 20 minute wait. All you do is take your park ticket (which is like a credit card) and slide it through the Fast Past Kiosk. It will print a little ticket for you that tells you a time to return. Come back to Space Mountain during that time slot, and you will get to go through the Fast Pass line, which nine times out of ten means you walk right on the ride. How cool is that? One tip is to let one person be in charge of the Fast Passes and let them keep all your park tickets together. So, while you are headed to Small World and Dad doesn’t want to ride Small World, he can take all of your park tickets to Space Mountain, swipe them through, and get fast passes for the entire family. *Take note that you can only have a fast pass for one ride at a time!

Here are a few more quick tips that worked for my family:

•In order to avoid “the gimmies”, tell your children that they can have one souvenir/gift at the end of each day. Only one. They can keep their eyes open for their special gift and most of the time they end up choosing an inexpensive item and you have saved yourself telling them no all day long.

•Stroller – bring your own. It was no trouble at all to load it on the monorail. There are stroller parking zones by each ride, so you don’t have to worry about where to put it. You can store all your coolers, snacks, and ponchos in it, and you will never hear the kids whine about being tired! My six year old was probably way too old to be in a stroller, but we borrowed a double one from a friend of mine and I have no regrets about using it.

•Enter the park before opening time in order to get a great parking spot and to see the “Good Morning Song” that they do at many of the parks. The one at Magic Kingdom brought tears to my eyes because I was so excited that we were actually there and my kids were getting to see this magical place. I know, what a sap! It was great, and the characters all came riding in on the train, too!

•Upon entering the parks, go straight to most popular rides – you can ride them immediately or get a fast pass and then go back. If you get to the parks when they open, you can ride plenty of things with no lines at all, but may want to get a fast pass to ride them again later.

•Get a spot for all the parades by sitting down at least an hour early. The sidewalks fill up quickly. You can have one person hold your spot while others shop, or take a snack break. Be sure to watch for the shady side for the daytime parades. It can get really hot in the sun.

•Be sure to either take (or buy once you get there) autograph books and pens. It is a big deal to get autographs and pictures from all the characters.

•Photopass – this is where Disney gives you a card (looks like a credit card) and you can give it to any Disney photographer at any time. They will take your photo and all the photos will be accessible to you online in your own photo album! This is a great way to share the link with friends so they can see your photos. You do have to purchase the photos through the Photopass system though if you want actual prints, and they are fairly expensive. We did end of buying a few and they were fantastic!

•Disney Park Mobile Magic App – At the time of my trip, this was not around, but my partner, Katie, will be in Disney this week and told me she downloaded this to her phone. The app will tell her where and what time the characters are in each park, as well as the wait times on all the rides. Plus it gives you the run down on all attractions (heigh requirements, etc) at each park and dining options. Be sure to check it out!

For more Disney tips, be sure to check out our Disney category under the Travel section.  It can be overwhelming when you start planning this trip, but even if you just show up at Disney with no planning, you are always going to have a magical experience! So, relax and enjoy your vacation!