When I was eleven years old, my parents and I took a trip to Walt Disney World with some family friends who were members of a timeshare there.
We didn't know anything about what was awaiting us, only that we loved Disney and were luckily visiting this time without having to rent a car.
In a single trip, we transformed from sweaty, cranky, and exhausted guests who return home from their vacation needing another vacation, to the guests who return from Walt Disney World refreshed, rejuvenated, and sad to leave the magic behind.
Two years later on Christmas Day, both my parents surprised me with our family's own timeshare, and the dates of our next trip together. (I think it's important to note here that this was a family-wide gift. The gift was the surprise and that our next trip was already planned - my parents didn't habitually give me timeshares as a Christmas gift; My parents worked unbelievably hard and we were comfortable, but we were nowhere near that comfortable.)
Below are the DeCarlo Disney Family Secrets - various lessons we've learned and integrated into our own vacations, tips we've observed from families with screaming, exhausted children, and little insider pieces of information we have learned along the way.
because Disney should be magical, not miserable.
arrive early, leave late
I never book a flight anymore - Disney-bound or otherwise - without looking at my Hopper app. (Not Sponsored or an Ad) Hopper keeps an eye on the prices of flights and notifies you when they rise or drop. It will even let you know if you are really getting the lowest price possible before you book your flight!
This app has helped me travel to Orlando for less than $150 round trip for over four years - keep in mind that price is relative to my location. I highly recommend utilizing this app no matter where you're located - save your money for park hoppers!
An early morning flight is worth the early wakeup call. Finding a flight that touches down somewhere between eight or nine in the morning is typically best - don't worry, there's a Starbucks right in MCO.
Whether you choose to hit the ground running in Magic Kingdom, walking off your jet lag in Disney Springs, or lounging by the pool, it is really so worth it to arrive early. My family and I pack our swimsuit or shorts in our carry-on, and hand our luggage to Bell Services upon arrival, if our room isn't ready.
This small change helps to begin your vacation the minute you touch down.
When planning your departure, booking your flight for later in the day helps to make your last day of magic feel less so. It gives you the time to explore the resort, do some final shopping in Disney Springs, or squeezing in some last few hours poolside.
You can even spend your last day at a park or two, just so long as you return to your resort in time to get to the airport for your flight home - my family loves doing this!
stay on disney property
This could be a big ask for some but, if you can afford to, it's worth every penny. I think it's really worth mentioning that my family and I could never afford to stay in a lot of the resorts that we stay in if we didn't have the timeshare, but I know so many families who make it work because they realize the value behind this.
When you stay on-property, you gain access to Disney's own Transportation System and you'll never have to rent a car.
As of 2015, parking in Disney will cost you $20 per day, which can really add up. My family hasn't rented a car or parked on property since I was eleven years old. I truly believe that unless you're a Florida-resident or planning on visiting family in Tampa while you're there, there is no need for it.
This is even true if you are planning on spending some time in Universal Studios. Disney Resorts employ plenty of taxi services able to drive you for a fraction of what you would pay-per-day to rent a car, drive to Universal, and park it there (which can cost up to $60 depending on the time of day).
This is just the tip of the ice castle.
The Magical Express is the mode of transportation designed to make your arrival experience seamless and stress-free.
A few weeks prior to leaving for Orlando, you will receive bright yellow luggage tags to attach to your luggage - I love to refer to them as little golden tickets because they allow you to skip baggage claim.
Disney's partnership with MCO allows your luggage to be sorted, transported to the corresponding resort found printed on the tag, and then placed at your room by 4pm that day.
It's these small touches that make the more annoying aspects of traveling to Disney so much lovelier.
Guests who stay on-property also gain access to buses, monorails, and even boats that shuttle guests to and from the parks and resorts.
This improves your transportation mode from that one sad car you rented, to up to three different ways to get to and from the parks, or even from one park to another - all at your fingertips. It's so much more efficient, and so worth the investment.
Staying on property is an investment, when you think about the convenience it holds. It's an investment not comfortable for everyone. I'm always hearing of resorts like Port Orleans or Art of Animation, who are running affordable deals for a certain number of nights - you have to do your research.
If you like the idea of staying off-property better because you have other plans outside of Disney, or if Disney is only a small part of your visit to the sunshine state, I also know of some resorts in the area (The Four Seasons Orlando, Marriott) who also offer their own brand of transportation to and from the Disney Parks. I can't speak to the details of those personally, but know that they are there if you have a timeshare or membership specific to those companies. It would definitely be worth checking out.
There are always deals or promotions running somewhere. If you don't know where to begin, seeking out the help of a travel agent is always an option.
save the spa
If there is one thing Disney does well (and there isn't, but let's assume for the sake of this conversation that there was just one thing), it's a spa.
SENSES: A DISNEY SPA is a tranquil, peaceful environment that will take you out of the park and into an oasis of relaxation - if you're visualizing Mickey Mouse themed facials, that visual couldn't be further from the truth.
These peaceful hubs can be found in The Grand Floridian Resort and Spa and Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa. Each location is unique to their specific resort, but they're both completely elegant. I have received treatments from both, and could not speak more highly of them.
make your reservation for the day before you leave.
The mistake that most people make is making their appointment for the day they arrive or the next day, before their legs receive the workout in store for them over the next few days. It's all a part of the experience - they want to arrive and instantly relax, which I totally understand. Instead of booking an instant massage, throw on a swimsuit and lay out by the pool the first day.
Save the massage for a few days into your vacation, when your legs and feet need it more from walking around the parks. Receiving your treatment toward the tail-end of your stay will be so much more effective for your tired muscles - especially if you have a long plane ride home.
spring or fall, you'll have a ball.
When it comes to Florida, transition seasons are your friends.
Traveling there in July or August will fill your vacation with more sunburn, sweat, chafing, and heat exhaustion than anyone should be allowed to endure. Florida Summer is a special kind of hell - they refer to it as how New York feels about winter; We stay inside as much as possible. It's the kind of weather where you can drink four bottles of water and never use the restroom; Where there's no use putting anything on your face in the morning but sunscreen; Where there's no use in even packing a hair product of any kind because it's going to be too humid to hold any style. Those may seem trivial, but for me it kind of kills the magic when I can't take care of myself the way I like to on vacation.
After the first week of December, holiday-crowd season, intensely crowded, and, frankly, chilly - no one likes to ride rollercoasters in the cold. I cannot stress this enough: Do not visit Disney during the Holiday Season. It's so crowded, the wait times for every attraction are outrageous (even with fast passes), and it's cold. A majority of Disney's activities and attractions are outdoor, and it's not nearly as fun if you're freezing.
Transition Seasons come with Festivals
In the Spring, Disney hosts its Flower and Garden Festival. Each park is covered in stunning arrangements - Some even have supplemental gardening and horticultural exhibits if you're sporting a green thumb. EPCOT, especially, is known for their character-shaped topiaries. It's exquisite.
During the fall, Disney hosts its Food and Wine Festival, where each country has the opportunity to showcase their home's cuisine. The food is delightful and the drinks are even better. It's a really fun time to be in the parks.
If you're visiting EPCOT during F & W, I really recommend going the day without making any dining reservations. There are literally bites/drinks to try in each country (approximately every three hundred feet). You will feel better grazing all day as you walk around to each, than if you graze all day and then sit down in a restaurant.
Adults, stay hydrated. There are eleven countries (fourteen if you count the three included in the UK section). If you're drinking around the world, grazing will be your best friend. I also recommend sharing as much as possible - the cost of each little bite and drink can add up, and will amount to much less if you split them between two or three of you.
I don't have children, myself. However, I have seen enough screaming, exhausted, overwhelmed babies making their way through FantasyLand to have learned some big lessons for my someday trips to Disney as a Mama. I'm obviously not an expert and I look forward to the day I can post here as a mama - but today is not that day, so take all of this with a grain of salt, unless some of this sounds like sound advice, then take it all.
Some of these tips even come from my own Mom:) - a personal pro.
I feel like I might upset some people by writing this, but do not, I repeat, do not waste your money on bringing an infant or toddler under the age of three to Disney World.
Not only will any child under the age of three not remember anything about the trip, but it will be a completely exhaustive and disheartening experience for you - and that's not what Disney is about.
Around the ages of 3-5, start small.
preparation is key. control their options.
(This one comes from my own Mom - I thought it was brilliant.)
I'll never forget sitting on the bus next to a family of adults and one child. His mother sat next to him, holding up an entire map of Magic Kingdom, asking him where he wanted to go first. He couldn't have been more than two.
Disney World is so overwhelming for children - between the music, the colors, the amount of people, the fireworks, and the larger than life characters, it's complete system overload.
Their little brains haven't the first idea how to process that much information. Add in the Floridian heat and humidity, exhaustive sunshine, random torrential downpours, and you have one overwhelmed kid and even more exhausted parents.
Do your homework.
I don't tell that story to Mom-Shame anyone, but it made me so sad that this vacation was going to turn out to be completely worthless for them because their beautiful son was too young to remember any of it, and not at all qualified to make any of the decisions that his Mom was asking him to.
Before you go, before you even present this vacation to your child, choose the activities that they can choose between. This may mean you only do Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom for your first visit, but keeping it simple is always the more stress-free option.
Sit down and make a list of the attractions in each park that they can physically do - all of this information is online, and many of the rides have height requirements. There is nothing sadder than a child who has built up months of excitement to ride Tower of Terror, only to get to the end of the queue and realize they're not tall enough.
Choose attractions and a time schedule that won't make you want to pull your hair out. Let them choose what they want from your list, so they still feel in control and you get to enjoy yourself. Everybody wins.
They don't know what they're missing if they don't know what their missing. You don't have to get to everything.
Yes, it's true that if you and your children walk around Magic Kingdom from 8am to 10pm, you'll "get your moneys worth." Just remember that an 8am to 10pm day is exhausting for adults, just imagine how a toddler feels.
At the end of the day, what are you really paying for?
For my family, quality over quantity applies in Walt Disney World too. It certainly isn't going anywhere and, for the most part, whatever you miss will be there next time.
Youtube is a great resource.
While you're exploring what options to present to your child, you may questioning whether a certain ride is too much for your six year-old. Fortunately, there are videos all over Youtube of each attraction taken by riders or posted by Disney themselves. This applies to almost every show, experience, and fireworks display. Once you decide what you're going to see, play these videos for your kids.
So much of everything (sounds, colors, lights, etc.) is unbelievably overwhelming for them. Trust me on this - the more they're prepared for (at least at a younger age), the better.
water over juice.
This sounds like a no-brainer, because in the Floridian heat you're going to need to stay hydrated. You're also going to want to control your child's blood sugar spikes as much as you can.
Only allowing your child to drink water in the parks (while it might spark the initial beginnings of a tantrum) will help your little one to metabolize all that sugar they'll undoubtedly be snacking on throughout the day - those Mickey ice cream bars are irresistible, and it's vacation after all. Small change, big impact.
reservations are life or death
There are a lot of opportunities for mistake when planning a Disney World vacation. You can forget to try a turkey leg, you can forget stopping at your favorite store in Disney Springs, but the biggest mistake that people make is winging it when it comes to dining reservations.
The most popular dining choices are typically booked out six months in advance, which means that one night of homework can make the difference between sitting at a table with excellent service and even better food or wandering aimlessly around Hollywood Studios ravenous, eating a soft pretzel for dinner.
I'm definitely working on getting more specific in a blog post to come, but for now my absolute hand-to-God favorites on the entire property are: Raglan Road, La Hacienda de San Angel in EPCOT and The Hollywood Brown Derby in Hollywood Studios.
don't go to the parks every day.
If you can afford to budget two non-park days into your stay at the most magical place on Earth, I promise those two days will be worth it. Four days straight of going to the parks is exhausting no matter how you budget your time. It's always best to space your days out so you have a day here or there to spend at the pool, walking around Disney Springs, or sleeping in.
I love to plan one of these days as the first day we arrive. There is something so luxurious to me about packing my suit in my carry-on, arriving at the resort, giving my luggage to bell services, and finding the nearest lounge chair, book-in-hand. For me, it's a beautiful beginning to an upcoming week of rest and relaxation. I love to place my second one right in the middle of the week, as a reset.