Hi Travelers! Last month I took you along with me on the Disney Dream, the new cruise liner that sails to the Bahamas and Disney’s private Island Castaway Cay.
Well I promised I’d be back this month with part 2 of my vacation just in time for you to plan your summer trips. This month I am giving you the lowdown on all my favorite spots and tips for Walt Disney World resort and theme parks in sunny Orlando, Florida.
My little one is almost 6 years old and this is our second year in a row to visit the Disney theme parks. There is nothing like seeing the face of a little one experience the magic of Walt Disney, especially the Disney Princesses. I happen to be a big fan of Disney World myself. It is one of the few places that I actually relax, leave work behind and act like a kid again for a few days.
However childlike I might be when I visit Disney, I am still very much in tune to the amenities like luxury hotels and great food that I look for when traveling. And the good news is that those luxuries even exist in the wonderful world of Disney. If your budget allows, I definitely recommend staying in one of the resort hotels that are on the monorail system. They include the Contemporary, the Polynesian, and the Grand Floridian.
The Contemporary resort is hip and sleek like many of the boutique hotels I often visit. And if you can stay on the concierge level, even better. They have complimentary breakfast, snacks and happy hour each day. Happy hour is especially great when you have spent a long day fighting crowds in the non-alcoholic Magic Kingdom.
Also in the Contemporary, though the food isn’t sublime, is a fun experience for the kiddos called Chef Mickey’s.
Mickey, Minnie and the gang visit Chef Mickey’s at each meal decked out in their culinary attire for photo ops with the guests. I am not a huge fan of the buffet dinner, but the character experience is definitely worth the visit!
Now for great food in the Contemporary and one of my favorite restaurants in all of Disney, The California Grill is a must! I think their sushi is possibly the best I have ever eaten and the entrees are delicious too. Plus, they have a great wine list and bar.
The California Grill is also on the top floor of the Contemporary and is a great place to watch the fireworks each night in the Magic Kingdom. So if a later dinner is good for you, then ask to be seated by the window for a perfect view of the spectacular fireworks show or step out onto the patio after dessert for a great view too.
If traditional design is more your style, the Grand Floridian hotel might be the right place for you. It reminds me of the Opryland hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. It is very grand, as its name suggests and has a Victorian feel with old Southern charm. It is also a huge property with two great swimming pools and its own beach on the lake if you have time for sun bathing.
At certain times of the year, they even have a good ole fashioned marshmallow roast and bonfire on the beach. My little one is a big roasted marshmallow fan, so we rushed back one night for this exciting extra.
Our daughter thoroughly enjoyed the Grand Floridian for many reasons. One of her favorite surprises was the many hidden characters in the decor that make for a great activity for little guests. Mickey and the gang can be found in the drapery, the carpet, the wallpaper, the artwork, and all sorts of other hidden places that make for great fun for the whole family.
You don’t even have to leave the property to have a great meal. There are several restaurants at the Grand Floridian but our favorite is Narcoossee’s. It is casual fine dining with a view of the lake and the magic kingdom. It’s also another great spot for viewing the fireworks. They even pipe in the music from the fireworks show so you can really feel like a part of the experience.
Now that we have established some great places to stay, let’s talk about the parks. The Magic Kingdom is obviously a favorite because it is magical! But if you are going to do the Magic Kingdom or any of the most popular rides at the theme parks, you must use the fast pass option. Here’s how the fast passes work: you nominate one family member, for us it is my hubby, to take all of your park passes and head straight for some of your favorite rides.
You simply pop your park pass in a machine, sort of like an ATM, and you get a paper ticket as your fast pass. The fast pass has a range of time printed on it noting when you can return. So for example, if you get a fast pass that says noon to 1pm, then you return during that period and can go to the front of the line through a special “fast pass” line. It saves loads of time and is especially helpful when you have little riders who aren’t great at waiting for a ride for 60-90 minutes on a busy day. We have never waited more than 20 minutes in the fast pass line and often we truly walk right on the ride depending on if it is a busy season.
Speaking of busy seasons, summer is obviously a busy season, so if you are planning to head to Disney soon, be ready to get those fast passes and also be sure to make all your restaurant reservations several weeks or months ahead. We have been to Disney for spring break and over President’s Day weekend. If you can wait that long, I definitely recommend heading to Orlando for President’s Day. The crowds weren’t bad at all. But be prepared that the weather can be much cooler this time of year. Spring break is pretty busy, but we noticed that Monday through Wednesday was much less crowded than Thursday through Sunday. So if you can avoid the weekends, I suggest you do.
When it comes to the Magic Kingdom, we all have favorite rides. My husband is more of an adventure guy, so Space Mountain and Splash Mountain are his style.
I am a bit of a wimp so Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is just my speed and Buzz Lightyear is loads of fun for the whole family.
My daughter can’t get enough of the teapots (a little too much spinning for me) and her very favorite was the Goofy roller coaster but it’s currently closed due to the complete remodel and addition to tune town.
It is turning into a huge new attraction called Fantasyland and is due to open in fall of 2012.
Another of our favorite experiences at the Magic Kingdom if you have a little girl, is a visit to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique for a royal makeover followed by lunch with the princesses in Cinderella’s Castle.
Reservations for this fantastic experience are required six months in advance. But it is definitely worth the wait if your little one is a fan of Disney’s princesses.
I think the perfect age for this is 4 or 5 as they still believe and they will have a magical time.
And just around the corner from the castle towards the teacups is a hidden outdoor theater where you and your kiddos can have story time with Belle. Check the signs and schedules for times, and then arrive a bit early so you can get a seat. If you are near the front, your kids might even get selected to come up on stage and be a part of the performance. Plus you can stay afterward for a photo op with Belle.
There are many other character greeting areas perfect for both boys and girls at the Magic Kingdom. You can see the times on the schedules that are printed each day. Some characters are more popular than others. Those from Toy Story seem to be especially in demand. And with the recent release of Tangled, the wait times to see Rapunzel were 2 to 3 hours during spring break and no fast passes for characters, so needless to say, we didn’t wait in that line.
A great tip for the parks if your kids are under 10 years old is to use a stroller. Yes, I know 10 sounds old, but even kids as old as 8 can get very tired walking the parks and unless you are a glutton for punishment, I don’t think you will want to be carrying them around while they rest. Strollers can be valuable while waiting in long lines for character visits. I highly recommend either renting or taking a stroller.
If you have a stroller that is big enough to accommodate your kiddo, bringing it along can be a lifesaver. The rentals are great and keep you from having to take it on the plane or in the car, but you can only pick up rental strollers at the entrance to each park. We found that we especially love having our stroller in the hotels which are quite large and on the monorail or waiting for it. Both this year and last our now 6 year old slept in her stroller while we enjoyed ourselves. And our stroller rain cover kept her perfectly dry on a really rainy day.
My husband and I are huge fans of Epcot.
It is probably our favorite spot and two of our favorite rides in all of Disney, Soarin and Test Track, are located there. Fast passes are a must for both of these exciting and popular attractions.
Another reason we love Epcot is the World Showcase where you can experience entertainment, food and adult beverages from countries around the world. Some of our favorites include the Italian restaurant in Italy, the Sushi in Japan, and the Fish and Chips in Great Britain. There is also a new restaurant in Mexico that we haven’t gotten to try yet, but if the wait times were any indication, it must be good. My hubby is also a big fan of having beer and brats in Germany, and I love buying the hand-blown glass Disney Character Christmas ornaments here for a great keep-sake.
If you are an “under-the-sea” sort of family, you might like the Coral Reef Restaurant located in Nemo’s Reef.
This year we opted for lunch with the princesses at Epcot instead of the Magic Kingdom and it was great. The experience is in Norway and is hosted by Belle along with her other princess friends. The food was actually better than at Cinderella’s castle and the fact that Epcot serves adult drinks made the whole experience a bit more exciting for my husband.
Though Epcot is certainly adult focused in many ways, it is definitely kid friendly.
I think it is possibly the best place for character sightings in all of Disney. And something that my daughter especially loves is that the world showcase offers a craft for kids in each of the countries.
You can start in any country at the “Kidcot” station and color whatever the craft of the day happens to be. Then visit all the other countries for a stamp on your craft and to learn how to write your child’s name in each language. It keeps your little one entertained for hours and is educational too.
There is also spectacular face painting in Epcot. And depending on the time of year, there are special attractions and festivals.
While we were visiting Epcot this year, the flower festival was taking place, and not unlike the amazement of the Rose Bowl parade, the floral and garden creations were mesmerizing.
Just like with the fireworks, if you are a fan of parades, you can catch one in just about any park at just about any time of the afternoon, evening or night. The Spectromagic parade each night at the Magic Kingdom is a spectacular parade of floats adorned with music and lights.
If your little ones are performers like mine is, they will love the 3 pm Block Party at Hollywood studios where they can dance and party with the Pixar characters to the beat of their favorite rock-and-roll tunes.
And while you are at Hollywood Studios, there are some must do’s. The number one favorite ride of our entire family is located here at Hollywood Studios. It’s the Toy Story ride and I would venture to guess that it has the longest lines of any Disney Theme Park ride. The fast passes for the entire day are often all given out for the Toy Story ride before noon so you have to get there early to claim your passes for this 3-D experience.
Other favorites for the thrill-seekers located in Hollywood studios include the Rockin Roller Coaster and the Tower of Terror.
And there are many things for the little kiddos too including another fantastic place for character meet and greets. Last year we saw the characters from Up and this year, from Toy Story 3.
Lunch at the Sci-Fi Restaurant is fun, but get reservations several weeks or months in advance if you want to sit in one of the vintage cars just like you’re at the drive-in.
And for the best food in Disney in my opinion, you MUST eat at the Brown Derby. A replica of the famous Hollywood restaurant chains frequented by top Hollywood stars back in the goldenage, the food really is top-notch. No matter whether you are there for lunch of dinner, the menu is the same. So you can experience a great filet mignon or a lovely piece of fish. And the spinach salad was one of the best I have ever eaten.
If I haven’t given you enough insight already and your trip is long enough, a visit to Disney’s Animal Kingdom is in order. Another great stop for roller coaster lovers, Animal Kingdom is home to Everest.
But it is also home to many attractions for all ages including the Safari where you can see real African animals roaming free in replicas of their natural habitats.
Once again, there are many great characters to meet here at Animal Kingdom. In the mornings and just after noon, there are characters waiting at the entrance to the park, so it makes for a slew of photo ops and autographs.
Well, there it is, my favorite must-do’s for the Disney theme parks. Now you know my favorites for what to ride, who to meet, and where to eat no matter if you have a weekend trip or a week-long adventure. If you need help planning your perfect Disney getaway, be sure to contact my favorite Disney travel consultant, Cindy Minor at Small World, Big Fun. She is your key to the perfect Disney experience. In fact, she is the reason I know about all these insider tips, so give her a call.
I’ll be back soon with my recent trip to Europe and will be bringing you more exciting locales all summer long. Until we meet again, Happy Travels!