The Happiest Place on Earth – Part I: Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

In 2009, when the boys were 2 and 4, I decided that I wanted to take my children to Disney World.  My husband quickly talked me out of it.  He said that they were too little to remember it, that SB was behaviorally too challenging to take to a hotel for an entire week, and that there were plenty of places we could take them locally for a vacation that would be closer, cheaper, and just as much fun at their ages.  I was disappointed, but I realized that he was probably right on all accounts.  We decided that when they were 5 and 7, we would reconsider a Disney vacation.  And you better believe that I didn’t let him forget it!

You see, I LOVE amusement parks.  I always have.   And Disney World is the quintessential amusement park, the one that sets the standard all the others try to live up to.  There are just so many things that I love about amusement parks.  I love the electricity that I feel.  Every guest in the park has come with an expectation for fun, and I can sense that excitement as I approach the gate.  I love the sounds I hear as I walk past a roller coaster.  I love hearing the roar as the train speeds by on its tracks, accompanied by the terrified screams of its passengers.  I love the smells in the air of sunscreen and fried food.  I love to eat ice cream, soft pretzels, french fries, candy, and all of the other junk food choices amusement parks have to offer.  And I actually love the summer heat.  At least, I don’t really mind it.  My tolerance for heat seems to be much higher than the average person’s.   My tolerance for cold is nonexistent.   I hate, hate, HATE being cold, but I’m just not that bothered by being hot.  Most of all, however, I love the rides.

I just can’t get enough of amusement park rides.  On an ideal day at a park for me, I go on every single ride at least once.  When I arrive at a park, I usually head straight for the most thrilling rides first, so that I make sure to ride the best ones early in the day in case I don’t have time to get to them all.  My very favorite rides are the roller coasters, and the faster, the better.  I think it all started at Disney World back in 1978.  My parents took me to the Magic Kingdom when I was 5, and we all got in line for Space Mountain without realizing what kind of ride that it really was.  It was my first roller coaster, and I absolutely LOVED it!  The very best thing about roller coasters is that exciting feeling of anticipation that builds with each “clack, clack, clack” of the chain as the train climbs up the first hill, followed by the exhilaration and speed of the first drop.  Again, the faster, the better.  I also love being surprised on a ride, so I enjoy rides that are inside of buildings and run in the dark, and any other types of rides that are original or do things that are unexpected.  But mostly, I just love the weightless feeling of speeding down that first hill.  As my husband and I waited in line for Space Mountain last week, he referred to it as, “the ride that created the Monster!”

So after thinking about this vacation for 3 years and planning it for literally over a year, my little family finally got on an airplane to Orlando on August 4th, 2012.  We were joined in Florida by my parents and my brother, who (for reasons I will never understand!) agreed to join us on our magical trek to Disney World.  We stayed in Orlando for 7 days and 6 nights.  And overall, the trip was great.  There were some bumps in the road, of course.   But I’m sure that the kids had fun, I think that the adults had fun, and I’m certain that my children will have fond memories of this vacation for their entire lives.  I have so much to say about our trip that I realized I wasn’t going to be able to fit it all into one blog post, so I’m going to devote 2 or 3 posts to our vacation.  This first post is about some of the mistakes I made on the trip, so if you are planning a trip to Disney World in the near future, I hope that you can learn from my mistakes.  And if not, well, I hope that you can at least laugh with me at the craziness.

Lesson 1 – Do not use your GPS for directions to the Magic Kingdom.

Disney World doesn’t want you to be able to just drive right up to their theme park.  That would be too ordinary.  They require you to park far away from the entrance, and then take a ferry boat across a man-made lake to the opening gate.  This limited access adds to the magical quality of Disney World.  You have to actually leave reality behind to enter this special world that Walt Disney has created.

Oh, a GPS will give you directions to the Magic Kingdom, all right.  And these directions will lead you right to the park.  But you won’t be able to get in.  We found ourselves desperately lost on our first morning, driving around on all sorts of access roads and “Employees Only” roads on the Disney property.  At one point we drove by the park only a couple hundred feet from the giant, white, futuristic structure that houses Space Mountain.  But there was not a parking lot or park entrance in sight.  As we fruitlessly drove around and around, we grew more and more frustrated.  The kids were especially irritated, since they were so incredibly excited to finally be headed to Disney World after months of anticipation, and didn’t understand why were weren’t there yet.  To make it all even more frustrating, we were driving around in a 2-car caravan with the rest of my family.  We finally stopped and asked for directions when we came upon a “Lost and Found” facility.  Eventually, we got to the parking lot, but then we had to ride a tram to the ferry boat and THEN ride the ferry boat to the park entrance.  It all seemed to take forever when we were already exasperated.  We left the hotel at 8 am, hoping to catch the opening ceremony at 8:50 am, but by the time we arrived in the park it was already 9:30 am, and I was disappointed that we had missed some valuable park time.  But my frustration (and the frustration of the rest of my family) was not over yet.  Keep reading!

How you can learn from my mistake – Skip the GPS, and ask someone at the front desk of the hotel or resort where you are staying for the best route to the parks.

Lesson 2 – Be aware that the “Armed Forces Salute” 4-day military passes require activation at the park gate, even if you purchase them in advance of your trip.

After the morning’s GPS/direction debacle, we finally arrived at the gate to the Magic Kingdom.  Ready for the fun to begin, I pulled out my “Armed Forces Salute” passes that I had purchased for the whole family several weeks prior to our trip.  The pass is a 4-day Park Hopper for $136, which is a fantastic deal.  I need to state here that I am incredibly thankful for the discount that Disney provides to military members and their families.  However, no one told me that before the passes can be used, they have to be “activated” at the park.  I handed my pass to the attendant at the entrance, and she told me, “You haven’t activated these yet.  Take them to Guest Services to be activated, and then come back here.”  As I looked in the direction she pointed me, my heart sank.  The Guest Services line was LONG!   But what else could we do?  So, all 7 of us waited for over 40 minutes in the baking sun in the Guest Services line to activate our passes.  Between getting lost and then waiting to activate our passes, all of our nerves were already fried and the day really hadn’t even begun.  We left our hotel at 8 am and didn’t get onto our first ride until 10:30 am.  Thankfully, the day did get much better after that.

How you can learn from my mistake – Know that “Armed Services Salute” military passes have to be activated at one of the park entrances, so try to arrive early on the first day before the Guest Services line gets too long.  Also, know that only the person with the active duty military ID needs to wait in the line.  All others in your party can go somewhere else and wait in the shade.

Lesson 3 – Weigh carefully the pros and cons of staying on Disney property vs. staying off property.

I researched lodging options for months before deciding where we would stay.  I finally chose a Fairfield Inn and Suites off of the Disney property.  It was a nice hotel and it had a pretty good free breakfast, but I’m still not 100% certain that I made the right choice.  There are many advantages and disadvantages to both options.  The obvious disadvantage to staying on property is price.  Disney resorts aren’t cheap.  Being military, we could have stayed at Shades of Green, which is a very reasonably priced resort on the Disney property for military members and their families.  But Shades of Green has a few disadvantages, such as no free breakfast (no Disney resorts provide free breakfast, because they want you to purchase their meal plan) and Shades of Green also doesn’t have suites.  (Well, they have a few suites, but they are not reasonably priced like the ordinary rooms are.)  I knew from past experiences that it is very difficult to get my children to go to sleep when we are all sleeping in the same room.  It was much more appealing to me to have a suite so that my husband and I were sleeping in a separate room from the kids.  I found a good rate on a suite at the Fairfield Inn, so I took it.

I didn’t discover the biggest disadvantage of staying off property until we had spent several days driving our rental car to and from the parks.  Although we were only 8 miles from the Magic Kingdom, it took at least 30 minutes just to drive to the parking lot.  The heavy traffic and long lights made the commute to and from the parks feel frustratingly slow.  I had read several books in advance of our trip about planning your Disney vacation, and most recommended the following plan: get to the parks as soon as they open, then return to your hotel room in the middle of the day when the weather is the hottest and the parks are the most crowded, and then return to the park in the evening after a nice afternoon nap.  This sounded great in theory, but after realizing how long traveling to and from the parks actually took, we decided that the travel time just wasn’t worth it to return to our rooms in the afternoon.

How you can learn from my mistake – I’m not sure that I made a “mistake” here, because I truly believe that we all slept better having a suite.  And my children (particularly SB) are naturally “early to bed, early to rise” types, so the “nap in the middle of the day” plan may have not worked even in the most ideal lodging circumstances.  I just want to emphasize that if you are planning a Disney vacation for your family, you should carefully weigh what is most important to you in your lodging accommodations and plan accordingly. 

Lesson 4 – Don’t let your children open their own maple syrup packets at the hotel breakfast.

OK, in the big picture of our vacation, this was not a huge deal.  But it did make a colossal mess, requiring about a dozen wet paper towels and a complete change of clothes, including socks, for the 7-year-old.

How you can learn from my mistake – Supervise your children as they prepare their breakfast.  And make sure you bring extra clothes, just in case.

Lesson 5 – Don’t push your family too hard or too long.

As I mentioned earlier, I LOVE amusement parks.  I spent countless hours preparing for this trip by reading books and websites about Disney World.  I wanted to do EVERYTHING!  Every ride, every show, every experience.  I didn’t want to miss a thing!

But in my excitement of vacation planning, here’s the thing that I forgot – not everyone loves amusement parks as much as I do.  Even people who enjoy amusement parks have their limits.  And when you push people (both children and adults) past their limits, there is a point of diminishing returns on the fun.

I had a plan for Day 1 in the Magic Kingdom that I was certain was going to be just perfect, and, well, magical!  We were going to arrive at the park in time to watch the opening ceremony at 8:50 am.  Then we were going to ride all of the rides we could until 1 pm, at which time we would return to our hotels for a nice rest.  We had reservations for the character dinner at Chef Mickey’s for 5 pm, and then we were going to return to the Magic Kingdom in the evening for more rides, and then see the 9 pm “Main Street Electrical Parade,” the 9:45 pm “Magic, Memories, and You” light show, and then cap off the evening with the “Wishes” fireworks show at 10 pm.  Catching the fireworks show was extremely important to me.  Every Disney DVD my children watch starts out with an opening menu showing Tinkerbell flying around Cinderella’s castle with fireworks overhead.  They had seen this little clip hundreds of times, and I so very much wanted them to see it for real at the Magic Kingdom.  But Day 1 did not go according to plan AT ALL!

I’ve already mentioned how the morning didn’t go as I had intended.  But once we started riding rides, everyone’s moods improved.  Since it took us much longer to get going in the morning then we had planned, and because getting to and from the park took so much longer than we had realized, we decided to scrap our plan to return to the hotel in the afternoon.  We came up with an acceptable plan B, which was to take an afternoon break by riding the monorail train to the Contemporary Resort.  This was where we needed to be for our 5 pm character dinner, anyway.  Although not our own hotel, this at least got us out of the crowds and sun for a few hours.  The resort had a decent-sized arcade, so the boys had a good time playing air hockey and skee ball.  At one point I realized I hadn’t seen my parents for a while, so I went looking for them, and I found them both at the old-fashioned pinball machines! 

The character dinner was awesome! (More on that in a later post.)  After dinner, we returned to the Magic Kingdom and rode a few more rides.  I started to get distressed as I watched the sky grow dark and cloudy.  We all dug out our plastic ponchos and put them on as the rain began.  Even though it was raining, the park was still crowded as we claimed a spot on the sidewalk to watch the “Main Street Electrical Parade.”  As we waited for the parade to begin, the rain started to come down even harder.  How miserable it felt to be just sitting there in the pouring rain!  And since it was approaching 9 pm, and my kids normally go to bed at 8, they both fell asleep in our laps.  SB woke up when the parade began, and seemed to enjoy it, despite the continuous rain.  AB finally woke up in the middle of the parade, but was so groggy that he was only mildly interested.  When the parade ended, we decided to make our way toward the park exit and try to catch the light show and fireworks right before leaving.  My husband held one groggy boy and my dad held the other as the light show began, still in the rain.  I was enjoying the cool effects on Cinderella’s Castle until my dad said to me, “They’re not paying attention at all, Mindy.  Let’s just go.”  He was right.  Both boys had their heads down and were dozing.  It was STILL raining.  No one else in my little group was having a good time.  They were all too tired and wet to care about lights, effects, or fireworks.  Feeling dejected that my kids would miss the fireworks that had been so important to me, I agreed that we should make our way to the car.

We were at least out of the rain once we boarded the ferry boat to the parking lot.  And as the boat took off, the fireworks began over the Magic Kingdom.  AB was out cold.  SB was sitting on a bench, slouching over, looking miserable.  I grabbed his arm and said, “Quick!  Come here to the edge of the boat and you can see the fireworks over the castle!”  “No!” he shouted, and yanked his arm away.  “I just wanna sit here!”  So I sighed, and then walked to the edge of the ferry boat and watched the damn fireworks all by myself.

I beat myself up in my head for a while as I watched, lamenting that so many parts of the day did not go as planned, and that it was all my fault.  (Well, the rain wasn’t my fault.)  But I was pretty certain that most of my family was miserable because we had been at the park too long and tried to stuff too many things into a single day.  And I knew that my children are not late night people, and that trying to keep them up for fireworks at 10 pm was taking a risk.  So I vowed to take the rest of the trip a little slower, to understand that we probably weren’t going to ride every ride, see every show, and take in every experience that Disney has to offer in 4 days.  And I sadly came to the realization that we weren’t going to catch any of the nighttime shows, because my kids just can’t stay up late. 

How you can learn from my mistake – Don’t push your family too hard or too long, especially if you have several days in a row of amusement parks planned.  Know the temperaments of your family members, and understand that if you spend too much time in a park, everyone will be miserable.

Despite the mistakes mentioned in this post, our trip really was fun for all.  I don’t mean to sound negative about our vacation.  I have another post planned about all of the things that went right.  I’ll hopefully have that ready in a few days.

3 thoughts on “The Happiest Place on Earth – Part I: Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

  1. “…and my brother, who (for reasons I will never understand!) agreed to join us on our magical trek to Disney World.”

    Simple; When I arrived at the hotel the first night, right before I knocked on your door I hear a little boy shout out: ‘Where’s Shaun!?!?!?’ And after entering the room SB got this ultra excited smile and shouted ‘I’m so happy to see you!’ 🙂

    –Shaun

  2. Lessons learned or not, you should have seen their big smiles when I asked them about their trip at ATKD!

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