Walt Disney World, Fla. Can there be two words more precious to a child than “Disney” and “World?” Certainly, we parents like to think that perhaps “mom” and “dad” might rank up there—and probably they do—but when it comes to child-centric vacation destinations, there’s nothing like the draw of Mickey Mouse and his Magic Kingdom.
At least it had always been that way for my children, Evan, 10, and Tess, 8. So when my parents invited us to join them at an Orlando condo during spring break week, who was I to say no? (My Disney-phobic husband, however, was ready to nix the deal until we came up with a compromise: We would take our time and drive to Florida, giving him free rein to explore the back roads of America in search of, as he likes to say, “The world’s biggest ball of twine.”)
I had some trepidations, too, when I considered the teeming mass of humanity we would encounter. And I underestimated neither the crowd size nor the difficulty of taking on Disney World during one of its busiest weeks of the year.
I was, however, pleasantly surprised to see that the amusement park has its crowd-control act together. There may have been way too many of us, but when a pedestrian traffic jam erupted, a red-shirted Disney employee appeared, as if out of nowhere, to instruct us all to move to our right, magically dispersing the jam.
But, since our job here at the magazine is to help make your job as parents easier, I decided to brave it. Before heading off to fight the crowds, I checked in with Danielle Courtenay, vice present of public relations for the Orlando Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, for some advice on how to make the most of our visit. She offers several ideas that sound great in theory but failed miserably in reality.
• Do the research. That means checking out the Web site and making a plan. Ask each child to choose one thing they most want to do and then plan to do those things first. “Once they’ve accomplished those things, they’re happy,” she says, “and everything else is gravy.” We tried that. Only problem: My son’s “thing” was the indoor roller coaster ride, Space Mountain. It was the thing for many others—we finally got on the ride around 6:15 p.m.
• Maximize your time. That means buy your tickets in advance. We were picking up comp tickets at “will call.” So that didn’t work, although it required only about 15 minutes. The bigger delay was in the security line. We waited for nearly a half hour for a security agent to go through our bag and look over the water bottles and jackets we were smuggling inside. (There is a speedy line for people without bags. It’s unrealistic for most families, but if you can manage not to carry anything, it will get you in much quicker.)
• Pick up a FASTPASS. This is the Disney answer to long waits at popular rides. It uses ATM-type machines to dispense time-stamped tickets for later admission to a particular attraction. We headed to the Space Mountain FASTPASS station the minute we entered the park. It gave us a 5:30 p.m. time slot. We arrived at the appointed hour—and waited 45 minutes to get on the ride. It beat the 95 minutes the regular shlubs were waiting. But not by much. The real problem: You can only order one FASTPASS at a time—we were limited to one every two hours. It’s a way to keep the early birds from booking a time on every ride before the rest of us get there. We were able to book three FASTPASS rides—the aforementioned Space Mountain, It’s a Small World (for Grandma) and Peter Pan’s Flight.
• Eat at an off hour. For example, have lunch at 11:30 instead of noon. We found an even better solution: We bought hot dogs from a cart and found a shady spot to munch.
• Go left. Since most crowds naturally gravitate to the right, you can beat the crowd by heading left at the entrance. That was our plan, until we realized that Space Mountain lies to the right. No way we were heading left.
•Stay on property. That’s Disney-speak for book a room at one of the 32 hotels situated inside the Manhattan-sized amusement park system that includes the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios, Disney Animal Kingdom Park and two huge water parks, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. Stay there and you have a number of benefits, including access to early morning and late hours when the parks are open only to hotel guests. This, of course, was not an option for us since we were staying with my parents.
At the end of the day, we were driven out of the park by an unexpected cold wind that quickly overpowered the light jackets we brought. Rather than stay to the bitter end, we headed out to catch the 8 p.m. bus back to the condo complex.
Final tally: just five rides. Did the kids think it was worth it? Yes. Did the parents? No. But we kept that little secret to ourselves.
And a final note: The Disney people don’t release crowd totals, so it’s impossible to say how many people were there on that April day with us. Tourism officials in Orlando, however, say that the early weeks in January and the first two weeks of December are generally slower periods. But don’t count on off weeks. One Chicago Parent writer, Jill S. Browning, who took her family there in early November was surprised to learn that schools in New Jersey are closed that week. And, she says, every one of those families was standing in line with her at Disney World.