Feb 5, 2010

Disney in hindsight, for those who've asked

Several people e-mailed me to ask me what we enjoyed most about each park and what I would do differently (or the same way) the next time we go to Disney World, so I thought I'd lay that out for you. (I'm surprised at how many of you are planning to go later this year!) Can you even BELIEVE that I have more to say about Disney? Impossible. And yet, POSSIBLE. This will be looooooooonnnnnnng, so feel free to skip it if you aren't interested.


Although it was a long process making all the dinner reservations, researching the best days for each park and pulling everything together in the binder, I would do it all again in a split second. The extra mile in planning (I think) saved us a lot of heartache once we got there. If you've been before, I can see how it's not necessary. But for us first-timers, it helped me out a lot. Given the fact that we had to wait a little while at most of the restaurants even though we HAD reservations (and confirmation numbers), I can only imagine how long our party of eight would have had to wait without them.

Megan and several others recommended that I visit Tour Guide Mike (for a $21 membership fee). TGM told me which parks would be the least crowded during each day of our stay, and except for one day (EPCOT), he was right on target. We never did figure out why EPCOT was so crowded on Wednesday (but not Thursday, when some of our group went back for the afternoon), but even on Wednesday it wasn't too bad. Although TGM had a lot more information to share, I only really referenced the crowd information, the restaurant reviews, which rides to get Fast Passes on and where to find the characters in each park. Well worth the membership fee.

Lauren had recommended using WDW Info to find out which shows were on at each park every night, since they don't perform every night. I printed the calendar out for the week we were there, which was really handy, and we saw everything we could.

Heather directed me to All Ears to see the menus for all of the park restaurants, and I printed out menus for each of the restaurants at which we had reservations. That helped a lot in terms of knowing what would be available for the boys to eat, as well as preparing the adult palettes for our meals. (Grayson got so excited when he saw that Akershus at EPCOT had salmon!)

If you want to go but haven't started planning yet, here's what I'd do for a start:

1. Make your hotel reservations. If you're not sure where you want to stay but you want to stay on property, they can do price comparisons for you on the phone for the different WDW resorts. (I also recommend including the park hopper tickets and the dining plan, but we were able to get that with a Buy 4/Get 3 Free deal. You should definitely check the Web site before doing anything to see if they have any good deals going on.)

2. Join Tour Guide Mike and use your customized visit planner to decide which parks you should visit on which days, based on crowds and special events.

3. Talk to your friends about which restaurants they recommend, then call and make your dinner reservations at the restaurants that correspond to which park you'll be in each day.


I would prefer to wait until Jake is AT LEAST 5 years old before we go back. While he had a FABULOUS time, it would have been nice for us to all have been able to ride every ride together as a family. For some of you, that may not be a big deal, but for me, it is. Once Jake is 48 inches tall, he should be able to do virtually everything everyone else can do, and I think that would be the most fun ever. Having Jake with us by no means ruined our trip ... on the contrary, I loved watching him experience all of the characters and the Magic of Disney in general. But the big boys had little patience for the toddler rides, and next time I'd just love for us to be able to do everything together.


Yes, Yes and Yes. We never would have made it without all of these things. As recommended by Honor, Shana, Ryan Leigh and Grape News, we rented the double stroller for the week, which held either Jake and the backpack or Jake and one of the big boys. The backpack held our Disney binder, my large camera, diapers, wipes, snacks, juice, a change of clothes for Jake (which we used when he had a huge blowout at Hollywood Studios), and a few other things. The "neck wallet" thing that Lisa and my sister recommended was WONDERFUL. Our room keys/meal tickets/park tickets (it's all one card) were safely stored in it, as were our PhotoPass and Fast Passes, and -- most importantly -- were easily accessible. Thanks for letting us borrow that, Lisa.

I'm REALLY glad we rented the van (and a car for my parents), because it allowed us the ultimate in flexibility. We were able to come and go whenever we needed to, and we ended up making three trips to the grocery store and two trips to the drugstore while we were there, which would have been more trouble if we hadn't had our own transportation. It also meant that we never had to wait if we wanted to go anywhere, and Jake was able to be in a car seat the whole time (which gave me a level of comfort that riding on a bus wouldn't have provided me.)


We ended up giving each of the older boys $40 for the entire week to spend as they wished. We told them to use it wisely, but that that was all the money they could spend on souvenirs. We bought each of them (including Jake) one T-shirt and a set of mouse ears that didn't have to come out of their money, and they were responsible for everything else. Nicholas bought a stuffed Chip & Dale set, a keychain and something else that escapes me now. Nathaniel bought a keychain and a Mickey Mouse light saber. He opted to save the rest of his money to help buy his Nintendo DSI later this year. They expressed no interest in the pins or pressed pennies, and for that I will be eternally grateful!

ANIMAL KINGDOM (open 9a – 5p)

In General
This park was overwhelming from a walking/touring perspective. It felt like we walked MILES that day, as the park is much more spread out than the other parks, which are a little more compact. It closes at 5:00, so you don't have as much time there as you have at the other parks, so it behooves you to move quickly! (Hard to do with a group the size and ages of ours.)

Animal Exhibits
Well done, although our kids were significantly more interested in the rides than the animals. If we'd had all the time in the world, I would love to have spent more time with the animals.

Wildlife Tours
We didn’t take the time to do them, since we’d been told that the best time for the animals is the early morning and we had breakfast from basically 9 to 11 a.m. It’s something I would definitely LIKE to do next time, though.

- Donald Duck character breakfast at Tusker House in Africa (table service) - We had to wait about 20 minutes past our reservation time to be called back, and then we had a photo opp with Donald in his jungle attire. They wouldn't take a picture with our camera, and the photo cost $30 when they offered it to us at our table. That was sort of disappointing, but the food was very good. Lots to choose from on the breakfast buffet, and it was all-you-can-eat.

- Flame Tree Barbecue on Discovery Island (counter service) - Since breakfast was so large, we just had a mid-day snack and then ate an early supper at 4:00 before the park closed. This was one of the better counter-service meals, with a whole rotisserie chicken as one of the adult meal options.

- I WILL say that snack locations were hard for us to find in Animal Kingdom. Since it was our first day, we didn't know exactly what to look for, but some of the places we stopped didn't serve snacks and couldn't point us to places that did.

Rides & Exhibits
- The Boneyard (DinoLand) - There wasn't a whole lot for Jake to do at Animal Kingdom as far as rides went, but The Boneyard was GREAT for him. It's a play maze designed around dinosaur fossils, and it has a large "dig site" where the kids were able to play in the granular-sized gravel. It was also in the shade, which was nice, and had areas for parents to sit -- which was WONDERFUL for our feet!

- TriceraTop Spin (DinoLand) - This might be the only real "ride" that Jakey got to do at Animal Kingdom. It sort of reminded me of a state-fair ride; it was tame and didn't scare him at all.

- Kali River Rapids (Asia) - Jake was the only one who couldn't ride this one, so we took turns. As luck would have it, the only person in our raft who got really soaked was my dad. It was a fun but very tame rafting ride.

- Expedition Everest (Asia) - I didn’t get to ride this one, but it ranked up there in the top three rides for Grayson, Nathaniel and Nicholas. They loved every second of it. Apparently it goes backward in the dark, which was a real thrill.

Parades & Shows
Jammin’ Jungle Parade - We missed it, but it looked like fun.

It’s Tough to be a Bug - Really fun show, but it scared Nicholas and Jake a little bit. It’s dark in the theatre, and it has interactive segments during which you feel water or air hit your face, etc.

MAGIC KINGDOM (open 9a – 8p with EMH 8 – 11p)

In General
This park felt easier to navigate than Animal Kingdom, possibly because it's smaller, but also because the castle is in the middle and everything else just surrounds it. If you get disoriented, you can just look for the castle and make your way back to it.

- Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe (counter service) - We ate lunch here, and it had lots to choose from including burgers, salads and sandwiches. Quality was fair and selection was wide.

- Chef Mickey’s character dinner at the Contemporary (table service) - The food was just "meh," but it was all-you-can-eat buffet and it was great to see the characters. They all came to our table individually and took pictures with us for free. None of that $30 Tusker House business here. And we lucked out and got a table by the windows that looked out over Space Mountain and Cinderella's castle. Nice!

Rides & Exhibits
Playground - While I was riding Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Grayson and Dad took Jake to a playground adjacent to it. If I remember correctly (50% chance), it's located under the train station by Splash Mountain. Jake really liked it, and a park employee came by and offered him a free stuffed Chef Mickey. Bonus!

Tom Sawyer Island - While Dad and Grayson rode BTMR, my mom and I took Jake across the pond to the island. It probably would have been more fun for the big boys to explore, but Jake wasn't that interested in it.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad - A big hit with our entire family! Everyone except Jake got to ride it, and we all loved it. A great ride for all ages, with ups and downs but no loops.

Peter Pan’s Flight - Everyone on Tour Guide Mike's review site said that this was a GREAT ride, and it was nice. I didn't think it was "all that," but it was dark, cool and we got to sit down, so I'm not going to complain.

Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin - In this one you sit in a cart and get to shoot at things and earn points. The big boys seemed to like it, but my favorite part was coming out of it and getting a picture with Buzz. It's probably my favorite character picture of all!

Space Mountain - We all loved Space Mountain! Again, it was a great one for everyone but Jake, who isn't big enough yet. The big boys rode twice.

Parades & Shows
Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor - We thought this was HILARIOUS. Very interactive, since they spotlight people in the audience and personalize each show. You can even text jokes from your phone while you're in the waiting area, and they will use your jokes in the show. It's a don't-miss in my book!

Dream Come True Parade - We tried to see this parade on our last day but didn't make it. It looked like it would be great.

Disney Wishes Fireworks Show - We saw this on our last night and LOVED it. It didn't have the huge impact that the EPCOT show did, because it was "just" fireworks, but they're the best fireworks I've ever seen -- and not too loud, actually, so it didn't even scare Jake.

Spectromagic Lighted Parade - We tried to see this one, too, but missed it. I'd love to see it next time!

EPCOT (FW open 9a – 7p, WS (open 11a – 9p)

In General
This park was way more entertaining and easily navigable than I expected it to be. People say you either love EPCOT or you hate it, so I guess we fall into the Love category. And we only made it through Future World ... we never even got to World Showcase!

- Sunshine Seasons (counter service) - We ate lunch here, right in front of the entrance to Soarin'. They had everything from Chinese to sandwiches to soups and salads. Our food was pretty good, and the selection was wide.

- This is the only Snack of the whole trip that I feel compelled to mention. We ate ice cream at Fountain View Ice Cream Shop, near the EPCOT Character Spot and the large fountain. You could get two scoops for your snack as part of the dining plan! And it was DELICIOUS.

- Akershus at the Norway Pavillion (table service) - One of the best meals of our trip, and also filled with princesses. This was the only time we made it over to the World Showcase side of the park, and it was dark so we couldn't really see anything. I had a great baked chicken dish and Grayson had salmon.

Rides & Exhibits
Mission: SPACE - Grayson, my dad and the big boys rode this one, and they loved the gravity-defying element of the ride. No one got sick, which I hear happens occasionally here.

Test Track - A unanimous favorite ... I think it was my dad's, sister's and my favorite ride in any of the parks. I would have ridden it 20 times! 69 miles per hour in the little car, zooming around the track ... it doesn't get better than that.

Soarin’ - Lots of good word-of-mouth about this ride, but it wasn't high on any of our lists. Just sort of okay, but nice to be indoors. NOTHING to do while you stand in line (and we had Fast Passes but it still took 20 minutes to get in the door).

The Seas with Nemo & Friends - Cute ride that all eight of us could do together, which was nice. It just kind of told the story of the movie and moved our "clam" along the track easily.

Turtle Talk with Crush - TOO CUTE! Very interactive show in which the sea turtle picks kids from the crowd to talk to and ask questions. Every show would be a little different because of that, and Crush had a great sense of humor!

EPCOT Character Spot - If you like pictures with characters, this is a Must for your list. We were in line for about 30 minutes and got to see all of the "biggies" in one fell swoop. I would totally do that again! Videos played while we were in line, which entertained the kids.

Maelstrom - Grayson and Nathaniel rode this one while we were waiting for the doors to open at Akershus for supper. It's a Viking shop and you ride on the shop indoors, and Grayson pronounced it "boring." I guess they'd skip that one next time, but it was a nice way for them to pass the time while we were waiting for Akershus to open.

Parades & Shows
Illuminations Laser Show - We saw this after supper sort of by accident, but I could watch it every night! Fireworks, lasers, some kind of lit-up globe out on the water, torches, cliched Celine Dion music ... I ate it all up WITH A SPOON.

HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS (open 9a – 6p)

In General
This park was GREAT for our family. I'd thought that it might be the boys' favorite before we went, but several people said it was their LEAST favorite and that we might only want to spend half a day there. We ended up there for a whole day plus a second morning! It just goes to show that every park has something special for every family, and some families connect more with some parks than others.

Hollywood & Vine (table service) - This was Jakey's special day, because this meal was really all for him. He's a huge Playhouse Disney fan, Little Einsteins in particular. He got to meet JoJo and Goliath, as well as Leo and June. He loved it! The food was average, but the company was great.

Rides & Exhibits
Star Tours - Mom, Jake and I were the only ones who didn't ride this one, and the boys liked it. Of course, it was Star Wars, so it would have had to cause them bodily harm NOT to like it.

Toy Story Midway Mania - Really cute, and it fills up fast so you have to get Fast Passes early. I didn't know it was a target shooting ride before we got on it, but it's really tame. You wear 3-D glasses and shoot at targets with your gun, earning points as you go.

Honey I Shrunk the Kids Movie Set Adventure (playground) - HUGE PLUS for families with small children (Jake's age). Great playground where our kids would have been happy to play most of the day.

RockinRollercoaster - I didn't know it went upside-down until it WENT upside-down, and I had my sunglasses, phone and camera in my pockets. Thank GOODNESS all I lost were my sunglasses! This is a rocky ride (and LOUD), so if you're prone to headaches, I'd take your pills BEFORE you ride. Totally worth it ... we rode it twice.

Tower of Terror - I kept waiting for "The Big One" to happen on this ride, because I assumed we'd get really high and then be dropped about 10 stories. Nope. It's more tame than that, which is fine ... but I wish I'd known what to expect!

Parades & Shows
Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular - This is QUITE the production! They move the sets all around, there's fire, big stunts, fighting, an airplane ... very exciting. It's a little long, but overall a good show.

Lights! Motors! Action! Stunt Show - The big boys, my dad, Grayson and my sister went to see this one on the day Jakey was sick. They liked it, and from the pictures it looked like fun.

Block Party Bash - This parade was VERY well-done, although loud. The big boys and I only got to see the tail end of it from our waiting place in line at Jedi Training Academy, so we missed the acrobats. But I'd love to see it in its entirety one day.


In General
OKW is a condo hotel, so we had two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and full laundry. It was SO NICE to have all of the comforts of home (except TiVo) [grin] while we were there. It was a fairly quick drive to most of the parks, although I can see how you'd get spoiled staying somewhere closer in such as the Contemporary or Fort Wilderness Lodge. But this was absolutely perfect for our needs this trip.

We didn't eat at the table service restaurant, Olivia's, while we were there. But the counter-service place, Good's to Go, was NOT that good.

Customer Service
The customer service was pretty good; my parents' A/C was whining when they settled into their room, so OKW moved them -- and upgraded them -- immediately. I never could figure out the maid service ... the in-room card said that they only came on Sundays, but they came three times while we were there. Every other day? Days when we weren't in the room when they knocked? If it was overcast? I have no idea.

Pool & Property
The boys LOVED the pool with the slide, and the lifeguards were very attentive. The property was pretty, although truthfully we were so busy in the parks that we didn't explore it much. Apparently there's a 2-mile jogging trail, but I never saw it. Our condo was well-maintained, and we didn't have any maintenance issues in our unit. They WERE replacing the siding on our building while we were there, but the workers were courteous and didn't start working until we were out of bed each morning, so that was no biggie.

O’hana at the Polynesian (table service) - I would rank this up there as perhaps my favorite meal in terms of quality and quantity. First of all, I've never seen that much food for a group our size. We ate maybe HALF of what they brought to our table. Second, it was yummy. Third, they served DELICIOUS bread before the meal and really good bread pudding (no raisins!) for dessert. Overall, great.

Hoop-dee-doo at Fort Wilderness (2 table service meals) - This is the only meal we had that took more than one meal plan credit per person. It's set up that way because it's supper AND a show. The show was entertaining, and the food was good. The fried chicken was very good, and my mom and Grayson said the ribs were the best they'd ever eaten. Overall, we were very pleased!

Earl of Sandwich - I bet you're tired of hearing about The Earl, aren't you? JUST GO. You won't regret it.

LEGO Store - Their inventory wasn't any better than our LEGO store in Birmingham, but they had a nice covered area outside where the kids could build with LEGOs for free, as well as a small playset. Great for a 30-minute stop while you're shopping to keep the kids happy.

Wonderful World of Memories - Nice place to pick up scrapbooking materials or just nice souvenirs from the trip, if you're interested. I didn't look at anything but the scrapbooking items, but they were fairly priced ($11 for a kit containing six sheets of paper, six sheets of stickers, one sheet of letters and some random embellishments).

World of Disney -Don't stop outside the front door or you'll get wet! The huge Stitch figure on top of the building spits water out of his mouth right onto the pavement in front of the main entrance to "the largest Disney store in the world." They certainly DO have a lot of inventory ... it was a little overwhelming!

Face painting - The face painting artists are really talented and personable. As you saw, Nick got his face painted twice, and the two artists did a wonderful job each time. The designs cost anywhere from $6 to $20.

Carousel and train - You have to pay $2 for each rider on the carousel and train, so we didn't do them, but the kids who did looked like they were having fun.

Soooooooo, that was really long. I hope it will be helpful for those of you who asked about it, and if you have any other questions, please e-mail me at stainsofgrass at yahoo dot com!

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