Planning a trip to Disney World {Part 1}

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I’ve been wanting to do a series on planning a trip to Disney World (btw, thanks for all the emails asking for Disney advice – I get excited just hearing about all your trips to Disney!!) and I’m finally getting down to doing it.

This is by no means exhaustive but admittedly, I’ve spent (too) many hours researching this particular topic, plus I’m also throwing in some handy tips we picked up during our travels so I think this will be helpful if you intend to head on down to the happiest place on earth.

//If you need more information, I’m listing some of my favourite resources herehere, here, and here.

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The most common question I get from people is “Is it really worth the trip down?” YES. My answer is always a shouty YES with big upper case letters. “It’s so costly”, “the flight is brutal” and “there are so many other gorgeous places in the world to visit” – all true, but there’s magic in Disney that I’ve never been able to find anywhere else in the world.

To me, Disney World is like fine wine, it’s meant to be taken in slowly and every time I’m there, I discover something new and magical to love. So yes, if you have the opportunity to do this, my sagely advice is hell yeah, GO FOR IT.

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Next most common question, “Should I bring my kids?” Again, YES!! A thousand times, yes. We’ve done Disney couple trips and Disney kid trips and hands down, the kid trips are way, way, way more fun. Sure, kids will cramp your style (both in life and in Disney) and you won’t be able to tour the park as efficiently as you would as a single adult – they will want to nap, or ride Dumbo 5 times in a row, or spend 35 minutes queueing to meet Mickey Mouse and then have a meltdown just as you reach the front of the line but seriously, there’s nothing quite like watching your kids take in the magic of Disney.

On our first coupley visit to Disney, we were blitzing around the park, riding all the headliners multiple times a day and having a great time, but then every time I saw a kid grin goofily next to Buzz Lightyear, or spontaneously dance on Main Street, or watch mesmerised as the fireworks light up the night sky, I’d stand there and look at them longingly like a creepy adult, just missing my babies and wishing they were right there with me to experience all of that.

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Ok, let’s get down to it.

#1. Plan to stay for 4-8 days.

Remember what I said about fine wine? A trip to Disney World cannot be done in under 4 days. Well, ok yes it can, but WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?? There are 4 parks, 2 water parks, Downtown Disney, plus 28 beautifully themed resorts to visit. Even 4 days would make for a very rushed trip.

The optimum length for us is 8 days: 2 for Magic Kingdom, 2 for Epcot, 2 for Hollywood Studios, 1 for Animal Kingdom and 1 non-park day for Downtown Disney. This way, we get to take things slow, enjoy the resort, have smores by the campfire and movies by the beach. Which takes me to point 2.

#2. Stay in a Disney Resort.

It’s not so big of a thing if you’re visiting the other Disney parks in Anaheim, Tokyo or Hong Kong, but in Orlando, being part of the Disney bubble is half the fun. We’ve tried staying offsite (at the Waldorf Astoria, which was beautiful), but there’s just no contest, I’d pick staying onsite anytime.

Depending on your budget, you can go for a Value (definitely Art of Animation), Moderate (love the Port Orleans Riverside), or a Deluxe (Grand Floridian!! Boardwalk, Beach Club and Poly are my favourites).

This trip, we did a split stay between the Boarkwalk Inn and the Grand Floridian. They were both so excellent that I’m really torn between the two. I think we’ll probably do another split stay the next time we go back.

The Boardwalk Inn captures the charm of old Atlantic City, complete with street performers and lights and dance halls. Being there feels so Boardwalk Empire, but happier and minus all the gang violence. As a massive bonus, it’s a 5-minute walk to Epcot and a 12-minute walk/boat ride to Hollywood Studios. Being able to stroll back leisurely to the boardwalk after Illuminations (instead of jostling with the crowd for buses) was indescribable. Also, the Boardwalk Bakery has the best pastries and desserts in all of Disney World. FYI, the next best place for sweet treats is Les Halles Boulangerie Patisserie in Epcot’s France, just 5 minutes away.

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Oh Grand Floridian, how do I love thee? This place is a dream. It makes me subconsciously hum tunes from Marry Poppins and it feels like little squirrels are about to break into song at any moment. There’s the horse carriage that makes its way around the grounds, the orchestra playing in the lobby, the beautiful landscaping, the posh-without-being-stuffy Victorian charm…it’s like I’m stepping into another world altogether. In terms of location, it’s a 5 minute boat/monorail ride to Magic Kingdom.

It doesn’t get better than this.

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#3. Ditch the car and save on rental

If you’re staying at a Disney resort, there’s really no need to drive in Disney World. The Disney Transportation System will take you everywhere you need to go via bus, boat and momorail. There’s even a Magical Express bus that will pick you up from the airport once you arrive, all free of charge. As long as you’re in the Disney bubble, you should be able to get from point to point without much hassle.

Then again, if you really want to drive, parking is free at all the resorts and parks.

#4. Disney Dining Plan – do or do not.

What kind of advice is that? Well, this one really depends on your vacation style and stomach size. We went for the DDP in 2012 (free dining package with Port Orleans Riverside) and it was amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten this much delicious food in 7 days. We had 1 table service meal, 1 counter service meal and 1 snack per person per day, plus a refillable mug with unlimited drinks. If you plan your meals right, you can eat $90 worth of food a day for a $60 dining plan. This works out to be a ridiculous amount of food, so depending on how much you can/want to eat, this is one of those “your mileage may vary” sort of thing.

This trip, we decided to skip the dining plan and just pay out of pocket for meals. It was a more manageable amount of food and overall, we spent less than we would have if we paid for the $60 per day dining plan. We did get the refillable mug though – it’s $17.99 and you can have unlimited drinks (coffee, hot choc, tea, soda) for the entire duration of your stay.

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Both options made for a very enjoyable trip. Maybe when the kids are bigger and need more food, we’ll do the DDP again.

#5. Bring a stroller along. 

If you have kids under the age of 6, I highly recommend bringing a stroller along. Truett and Kirsten are great walkers with remarkable stamina but the jet lag coupled with the long days in Disney makes the stroller a necessity. The first 2-3 days after the flight, the kids will be wiped out between the hours of 1-5pm, possibly earlier if they’re younger. Just put them in the stroller and roll with it until they adjust their internal clocks.

We’ve tried the compact umbrella strollers, which are lightweight and easy to fold but it doesn’t offer much in terms of comfort when they’re passed out in the middle of the afternoon. Especially if you have multiple kids, do a solid double stroller like the Britax B-Agile or the City Mini. These 2 models were everywhere in Disney World. We got the Britax and I love this stroller so much. Sturdy, comfortable, individual recline, folds down real compact and so easy to manoeuvre.

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Ok, this post took longer than I thought. I’ll wrap up part 1 here, more to come in part 2!

I solemnly swear that I am up to no good

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Since we last visited Universal Studios Orlando in the fall of 2013, there’s been some really exciting additions to the park, most notably in the form of the stunning Harry Potter Diagon Alley expansion. ZOMG DIAGON ALLEY!!!

If you’re a Potterhead, you need to put this on your bucket list right now because the theming here will make your brain explode. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was already pretty amazing with the original Hogsmeade section but now with the addition of Diagon Alley, it has entered a new level of awesome.

I was maybe a little too excited when I walked into Diagon Alley, Finn was all like “Mommm, you’re embarrassing me.” Little guy needs to get used to it, he’s got a whole life ahead of being embarrassed by his mom. It’s all part of having a mom.

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We had pies at The Leaky Cauldron, perused wands at Olivanders and Gregorovitch’s wand store, strolled past the Daily Prophet, went into Borgin and Burkes, checked out Eeylops Owl Emporium, then picked up ice cream from Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour. We also met Stan Shunpike, who was just casually standing there with his Knight Bus and even got to sit on the steps of 12 Grimmauld Place, headquarters for the Order of the Phoenix.

Awesomeness level? Insane.

I can tell try to tell you about how extraordinary it is, but I think this will work better if I just show you the photos.

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And of course, I have to introduce you to THE Dragon. That sits on top of Gringotts Bank, breathing fire just for fun.

We were hanging out along Diagon Alley when we noticed some sort of commotion going on – people were whispering excitedly and gathering along the street. Next thing we knew, the dragon let out a roar of fire and the street erupted in spontaneous whoops and cheers. It was magnificent.

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The line for Escape From Gringotts (one of the 2 new headliner rides) was too long and the kids were getting restless from watching mommy go a little nuts in Diagon Alley (plus they couldn’t ride anyway) so we decided we’d have to come back for this another time.

Escape From Gringotts, you and me, we’ve got a date.

We did get to ride The Hogwarts Express (the other new headliner), which was an excellent ride. It’s a real train (with steam and everything!!) that connects the two Universal Parks (Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure), themed such that it seems like we were riding from London to Hogwarts. Each cabin has a window that projects scenes from the movie, and it all felt incredibly real and immersive.

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Even the platforms were done so brilliantly. Platform 9 3/4 has this holographic screen effect so it seems like people would calmly walk into a brick wall and then suddenly disappear behind it. Super cool.

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No question about it, this new addition to Universal Studios is really a game changer. We had such a wonderful time nerding out to Harry Potter, watching all our favourite places in Diagon Alley come to life and sipping delicious butterbeer, it was most definitely worth the visit.

For a Potter fan, this is absolute gold.

Being all artsy in NYC

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One of the things we had planned to do in New York was to catch a Broadway show (Disney’s Aladdin!!) but with a party of four, paying full price for all 4 tickets was a little steep, especially since Finn was likely to either sleep through the whole show or get restless and make me leave the theatre 20 minutes into the performance.

Our solution to this? Lottery tickets.

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Here’s how it works: several pairs of tickets are reserved for the lottery each day and 2.5 hours before the show, they’d open up a counter for anyone to put their name down for a lottery draw. Winners of the draw could then purchase a pair of tickets (usually worth $150-220) for $30 each.

It was quite an experience. There were like 200 of us huddling outside the theatre in the cold, looking very hopeful as the names were called out one by one. The winners would squeal in excitement as their names got called out and after the last name was read, there would be a collective sigh of disappointment from the crowd.

We tried this 3 times until finally, we heard the lady yell “Kirsten Kao” and I couldn’t help squealing “YES YES YES!!! Over here!! 2 tickets!!”

So that’s what it feels like to win the lottery. Totally rad!

Kirsten was so thrilled that her name got called and she had a wonderful time watching Aladdin with the husband (whose favourite Disney show happens to be Aladdin). They both agreed that it was a fantastic performance.

While they were watching the show, I thought I’d bring Finn over to the Museum of Modern Art for an afternoon of art appreciation. Despite the fact that I have very little artistic ability (both to create or talk about art pieces), we had a great time at MoMA. In fact, I was surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did. It would be pretentious of me to tell you about how the reductive quality of the spatial relationships contextualised the eloquence of those pieces, but seriously, some of them were really quite um…nice.

Finn liked this watermelon so much, he stood there and made me take a photo.

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There was even a very fun kids area for the little tots to express their artistic side. Here’s Finn getting all artsy at MoMA.

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Oh wait, back up a little. So Finn and I hopped on the subway to get to MoMA from Times Square and we got off at 5 Av/53 St only to realise that there were no elevators at that station. We stepped off the subway and stood there looking up at what seemed like 30,000 steps to hike up. With a massive double stroller.

I considered my options, which were a) to make Finn walk beside me while I attempted to carry the stroller up the steps (and hope he doesn’t run off) or b) take the subway to the next stop with elevator access and walk back to MoMA. I was leaning towards option b when a burly black guy walked over to us and said “Hey let me help you with the stroller. I’m late for work anyway.”

“Wow thanks!! But this stroller is really heavy”, I started to say, then I looked at his giant biceps and I figured it would be insulting to his muscles. So I said, “Thanks, but I really don’t want you be later than you already are.”

“That’s alright. Why don’t you carry the baby and I’ll help you carry the stroller. I have 2 kids so I know how crazy this is.”

I picked Finn up and he helped to lug the stroller up a ridiculously long flight of steps while I thanked him every step of the way.

People say New Yorkers are impatient but we met a whole lot of kind, helpful people who would stop to hold doors open for us to pass and give up seats and offer to help with the stroller on the subway. Ok, there was this one guy who tsked and said some words I will not repeat when we took an extra 3 seconds to navigate the stroller up a kerb while crossing the street but that guy was the exception rather than the norm.

On our last night in New York, the husband bought me a ticket to Wicked and offered to watch the kids while I had a night out. Best. husband. ever.

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The set was incredible. As was the story and script and singing. It’s every bit as good as it’s hyped up to be. Possibly even better.

Not a bad way to end a visit to NYC. :)

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