Taking the family to Disney World has long been a part of the “American Dream.” As a child I always wanted to go, but not if it meant getting on a plane. (I didn’t overcome my fear of flying until I was in my 30s.) As a mom, I always wanted to take my kids. (And quite honestly, I still wanted to go myself.) But life was hectic, and there was never enough time or enough money. And before I knew it, my babies were no longer babies. They were 15 and 12 by the time we started planning our first Orlando trip. But I still wanted it to be PERFECT.

I spent hours poring over websites and blogs, often so overwhelmed by all of the information that seemed to tell me everything and nothing at the same time, I think I threatened to cancel the trip at least a dozen times. And I don’t even have little girls looking to live out their princess dreams, which took a HUGE amount of pressure off me.

I planned out every minute of our trip- what attractions we would see, where we would eat, what route we would take. We had the wonderful advantage of staying at the in-laws’ timeshare (which was fab), so we didn’t have to worry about lodging. We drove (from Michigan- fun times!) so we had our own transportation. Our tickets were pre-purchased, our itineraries were set, and we woke up our first morning in Orlando ready to tackle the mother of all iconic theme parks- Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.

Now, as I stated previously, my kids are older. We were warned by several people that Magic Kingdom is geared more toward little kids, particularly little girls. But we all agreed that we had to go anyway. So with smiles on our faces and more excitement than one minivan could handle, we crossed the threshold into the “Magic Kingdom.” And I had to yell at the 15 year old to wake up and look at the sign. He was asleep in the back of the van. (He’d woken up that morning with a sore throat and a headache. SUPER.)

We got there before the park opened and stood in a line to stand in a line to stand in another line for the monorail. And as we were waiting, the unthinkable happened. The teenager began frantically shaking my shoulder to get my attention. I turned to face him. Our eyes locked. I knew. He knew. But before either of us could do anything about it, he projectile vomited all over the monorail platform. (And himself.) In front of no less than a couple thousand horrified onlookers. Oh, and did I mention that this was during the height of the ebola scare (Fall 2014)? Worst. Thing. Ever. The monorail attendant sprinkled sawdust down (more like dumped it), and the teenager destroyed my Tide to Go stick trying to get the puke off his shoes. But we soldiered on.

As we made our way down Main Street, we took the obligatory photos with Cinderella’s Castle in the background. Then we found the first aid station and grabbed barf bags. As we sat in an empty food court, we contemplated our options. Should we stay, or should we go? All of my carefully made plans were out the window. Our day, if not our entire trip, was ruined. Disney World was a bust.

Except it wasn’t. We decided to stay, essentially doing Disney World on the fly since most of the activites we had planned were now a no-go with a sick kid. I feel like I learned a lot about navigating the Magic Kingdom that day. Oh, and by the way, I was still recovering from my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad knee injury at this point. So I was in a wheelchair until we got inside the park, then on a motorized scooter.

I tell you all that to get to this: Disney World can still be magical, even if your circumstances are not. We overcame some incredible hurdles to be able to enjoy our day, and by the end of it, the teenager was even feeling well enough to ride Space Mountain. (A rite of passage, some might say!) I read so much about families having terrible experiences and hating life after a day at Magic Kingdom. I honestly don’t see how. So here are my rookie tips on how to enjoy a no-stress (okay, low stress) trip to Disney World:

DON’T OVERPLAN. Seriously, don’t. Look at the interactive map on the Disney World website, figure out which attractions you want to hit. Don’t be too overwhelmed. The park is big, but it’s not as big and scary as the map makes it look. It’s basically shaped like a cul-de-sac. You start on Main Street, which is a straight shot, and when you reach the end, you either go to the right (to start at Tomorrowland) or the left (to start at Adventureland.) From there, you’ll go in a giant loop, and at the end of the day, you’ll end up right back where you started. If you can afford fastpasses, get them. They’re worth it. If you can’t, you still get three complimentary fastpasses that you can set up through the Disney World app on your phone. (P.S. Download the app and learn how to use it before you go.) But they may not be for the attractions you want, necessarily, as you have to pick a fastpass bundle. Beyond that, just GO WITH THE FLOW. Don’t overschedule yourself to where you’re running to get from place to place because you’ve locked yourself into certain timeframes. I heard so many family squabbles where the kids wanted to stop to look at or do something amazing, and the parents were yelling about a reservation or fast pass time window they had to get to. Don’t be that asshole. You’re there to enjoy Disney World, so ENJOY IT.

Dole Whip!

DON’T STRESS ABOUT FOOD. I’ve read so many things about how amazingly expensive the food is at Disney World. I’ve gotta say, I don’t feel like it was too out of line with other touristy places we’ve been, at all. I’ve read about how you can take in your own water bottles and small coolers, etc. But honestly? Florida is HOT. The more stuff you take, the more stuff you have to lug around all day, worry about losing, etc., etc. Maybe it’s worth it to you, but it wasn’t to us. We ate breakfast before we left in the morning. We did turkey legs for lunch (giant and delicious). We made an impromptu stop at Pinocchio Village Haus for salads and Cokes once the teenager stopped retching and got his appetite back, and we stopped at the infamous Aloha Isle on the way out for a must-try Dole Whip. (We picked up pizza for dinner on our way back to the timeshare.) The exception to this rule is if you’ve got a little one who has their heart set on a character dining experience. (I hear the ‘Be Our Guest’ restaurant is incredible.) In that case, MAKE A RESERVATION AND MAKE IT SOON. Some of these places book up to six months in advance. If you make a reservation, try to make only one per day so as to not overbook yourself as mentioned in the previous section. If you can’t get a reservation, don’t fret. Most restaurants keep some spots open for walk-ups. You still might not be able to get in, or you might wind up waiting for a while, but it doesn’t hurt to at least check.

ABOUT THOSE DOLE WHIPS: DO NOT skip them! They’re easy to miss. They’re located in a little hole-in-the-wall concession stand called Aloha Isle, right inside the entrance to Adventureland (if you’re entering Adventureland from Main Street.) Pineapple soft serve might not sound like a big deal, but trust me when I tell you IT’S EVERYTHING. It really is. You can get it in a float (a little too much pineapple for me) or just get the soft serve by itself. Now, here’s the mistake I made- we started our day at Adventureland, so we got our first round of Dole Whips at 9am. They were MUCH better at the end of a long, hot day. And whether you start on the left or right side of the park, you’ll still wind up within walking distance of Aloha Isle at the end of the day. So wait until you’re hot and tired and wishing you could chop your own feet off. It makes the Dole Whip that much sweeter.

TAKE YOUR OWN PICTURES. The whole photo fastpass thing may sound enticing, and I guess for some people it might be the way to go, but watching families trying to wrangle their kids to stand still for long periods of time while the photographers fought against the crowd to get a perfect shot- no thanks. I took zillions of pictures with nothing more than my cell phone, and they turned out awesome. Even made the kids photo books out of them.

SET A SOUVENIR BUDGET. Whether it’s a certain dollar amount or a certain number of things, make sure the kids know what they’re working with before you set foot in a single gift shop. My kids had their own money, and decided completely on their own what to spend it on. When it was gone, it was gone, and there was no further discussion about it. Now, I will say this- just like with the food, I heard all kinds of things about how ridiculously expensive the souvenirs are, but I didn’t think they were too outrageous compared with other places we’ve been. I was actually surprised at how affordable some of the things that I though would be over the top expensive were. Anything you buy that you don’t want to carry with you, you can have sent to the courtesy desk at the front of the park, and just pick it up on your way out. That life-sized Elsa doll your daughter has to have? GET IT NOW. While there are certain things that are available at a number of different shops, there is a lot of merchandise that is sold only in one specific store in the park. So you might pass on something you (or your child) really wants, promising you’ll find it elsewhere, and then that might not always be the case. Buy it, pay for it, ship it to the courtesy desk, and pick it up on your way out.

YOU WON’T FIND MICKEY MOUSE. Or probably any characters, to be honest. They’re not just out walking around the parks the way we imagined during our childhoods. So if there’s a character you or your little ones have to meet while you’re there, find out where they’ll be, and at what time.

TAKE PONCHOS FOR EVERYONE. We took only one backpack and one tote bag, so space was limited. But ponchos are a must. If you’re going to multiple parks on multiple days, odds are it will torrential downpour at least one of those days. For us, it was during day two at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Seriously, hurricane weather. Even with our ponchos on, we got drenched. Without them? Forget about it.

PLAN A DAY OF REST. This was one thing my best friend (who is a Disney expert) suggested to me, and it’s an absolute must for multi-day trips. We did two days at Disney and two days at Universal, with a “day off” in the middle. Even though that day wound up being pretty busy (we drove out to the ocean), taking a day away from the insanity of the giant theme parks was so vital to our physical and mental health.

GO TO UNIVERSAL STUDIOS. Disney’s Magic Kingdom is iconic. Disney’s Hollywood Studios is pretty cool (The Star Wars ride is a must.) But Universal Studios is AMAZING. By far the best day we had, and not just because nobody was puking and we didn’t get caught in a hurricane. The Transformers ride is incredible, and we’re not even big Transformers fans. It was the only thing we did twice. Now, here was the hard thing for us- my 12 year old is TERRIFIED of roller coasters. Terrified. Most of the rides at Universal are indoors. So it was nearly impossible to tell how high or scary a lot of the rides would be. I can tell you this- aside from the outdoor coasters (Rip Ride Rockit and The Incredible Hulk), the only legitimate “roller coaster” is The Mummy’s Revenge. It’s indoors, so it’s deceptive, but it’s fast, scary, and has lots of drops and dips. And a lot of it is in the pitch black. Traumatized the kid on that one for sure. But every single other ride there was more of a virtual reality ride than anything else, and he loved them all. And if they weren’t too scary for him, they won’t be for your young ones either. (And when I say young, I’m talking 10ish years old and up. A lot of them have kind of scary themes that might frighten younger kids.)

HARRY POTTER WORLD: If you want to ride the Hogwarts Express, you have to have a park-to-park pass, as it takes you from Hogsmeade (Islands of Adventure) to Diagon Alley (Universal Studios.) And YOU MUST TRY THE BUTTER BEER! It’s actually pretty delicious. If you can, plan your day so that you wind up at Three Broomsticks Restaurant in Hogsmeade. The food is incredible, seriously, and very affordable. We got the “family feast,” pictured here, and it was only about $40 if I remember correctly.

DON’T GET DUPED BY GYPSY SWINDLERS. When we were at Islands of Adventure, there were these little “buy your own clam with a pearl in it” stands. Kinda cool, right? We were on the last day of our trip, I hadn’t gotten any souvenirs yet, and the clams were only $15. Affordable, fun, different. So I walked into it blindly. “I’ll take a clam,” I said. “Go ahead and pick the one you want,” the gypsy who called herself Amy said. So I picked a clam, and watched in amused delight as Amy the Gypsy performed her little clam opening ritual, then cracked open the clam to reveal the cutest, most perfect little pearl. “Wow, that’s a big one,” Amy said. And I believed her. “Look at that beautiful color, it’s really unique,” Amy said. And I believed her. I was the luckiest pearl mom ever. Like ever. I named her…Pearl. Obviously. “Now what would you like to do with your pearl?” Amy asked. Ummm…what? Take it home and cherish it forever, obviously. Only then did I realize that I wasn’t in some magical mermaid lair. I was in a jewelry store. And Amy was no pearl queen. She was a gypsy swindler. The pearls are cheap because THE JEWELRY IS NOT. I opted to make a necklace. The only ring I wear is my wedding ring, and a single pearl earring would have looked kind of weird. “Do you like white gold or yellow gold?” she asked. Obviously, white. She didn’t mention that silver was an option. And a much more affordable one at that. But…IT TOTALLY IS. I got the most basic white gold fastener and the most basic white gold chain. And I still spent almost $200 on my pearl necklace. I’ve worn it almost every day since, simply to justify my purchase. Don’t be like me. Don’t let the gypsy swindlers get you. Now, I’m not saying don’t get the pearl, it’s definitely a fun experience. I’m saying pick your jewelry first. Ask about silver. Know how much you’re going to spend before you crack open that clam. And if all you want is a majestic little pearl without the jewelry, have the courage to say so. “No jewelry for me, please, I’ll just take my pearl and go home now.” It’s your right, as the mother of Pearl. (See what I did there?)

Lastly, one of the best pieces of advice I can give you, even though I know you won’t listen:

NOBODY CARES WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE. Don’t spend unnecessary money on coordinated, themed outfits for every day of your trip. Know who’s paying attention to what you look like? NOBODY. By the end of the day, we’re all sweaty, hot messes, too exhausted to walk to our cars, wondering if security might escort us out by golf cart if we refuse to move. The last thing on anyone’s mind is what anyone else is wearing. So wear comfortable, breezy clothes and sensible, broken-in shoes. Put your hair up in a ponytail. Skip the makeup (you’ll just sweat it off anyway) and slather on sunscreen instead. Nothing ruins a good vacation like a wicked sunburn.

Over the course of a week, my family drove across the country and back, visited Senoia, Georgia (Walking Dead Central), did two days at Disney, a day at the ocean, and two days at Universal (including a night at Universal’s Haunted Horror Weekends), stopped in Nashville to visit The Bluebird (a la Nashville the TV show). We battled the flu (which I now refer to as Disneybola), a hurricane (not really), and my physical limitations. But we had an amazing time, somehow. It was the stuff memories are made of. And as we got up on our last morning in Florida, ready to make the long drive home, the sound of my youngest son puking in the bathroom as he came down with Disneybola solidified my resolve that it would be a long, LONG time before we would embark on such an adventure again. Over the next two days, we drove home as he fought a 104 degree fever and pulled over every so often so he could vomit in peace. Somewhere at a rest stop in Georgia, I caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror. Sunburned, exhausted, bags under my eyes, wearing yoga pants and my $200 pearl necklace. Yoga pants and pearls. What a perfect way to sum up our trip.

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