Now that we’re back from our first family trip to Disney, I’ve had some time to reflect on what worked well and what didn’t work so well on our trip.
These are tips that worked for us, and may work for you depending on your situation and how you prefer to vacation. I started working on this list, and realized I’d need to split it up into more than one post, because there is so much to share. So first I’ll share what worked for us when it came to planning the vacation, then we’ll look at tips once you’re at the parks.
Tip #1: Stay on-site.
The Walt Disney World Resorts system is made up of so many different resorts, from value resorts that are often as cheap as or cheaper than budget hotels off-site, to the all-out posh experience of some of the best hotels in the world. There’s something for every price point, and depending on the time of year, there are often sales and discounts when you combine a resort stay with your tickets.
All resorts have some of the same basic features. They all have a food court (or food stands) and a shop for gifts or basic necessities. All resorts provide free, easy transportation to all of the Disney parks. And when staying at any resort, your room key is also your park admission ticket, and you can grant charging privileges to it, too. This is super helpful when you don’t want to carry a lot of cards, cash and an ID with you when going to the theme parks – one card is all you need for admission and any purchases.
As a resort guest, you can also request that anything you buy in the parks is sent back to your resort instead of carrying it around all day. (This is also a free service.) There are pools at each resort, too. More expensive resorts will have upgrades like on-site childcare centers, restaurants, and activities.
We stayed at Port Orleans – Riverside this time, a moderate resort. We’ve also stayed at Pop Century (a value resort) when Aaron and I went together many years ago. Both had the features mentioned above. The rooms were a little nicer at Port Orleans, and the “theme” of the resort is a little more grand. Being on a river, we had a boat option to travel to Downtown Disney instead of the bus, and they also had more on-site resort activities and a table service restaurant. The room quality was a step up from Pop Century, but even Pop Century was a very nice standard room for the money.
Tip #2: Get the dining plan, especially if they offer a discount for it.
When we first booked this trip, I said no to the Disney Dining Plan. I had grand ideas of carrying granola bars and water with us everywhere we went, and looking for the cheapest food we could find while there. As we got closer to the trip, though, I realized I didn’t want to weigh myself down by carrying that stuff all day, and heard positive tales of others who used the dining plan. (Thanks, Erin!) I called Disney’s vacation planners again and added in the plan.
Basically the plan is a pay-up-front discount dining plan that provides you with two meals and a snack each day. There’s an option for 2 “quick service” meals per day (meaning you go to a counter and order it) or 1 quick service and one table meal (table=a sit-down restaurant where they bring the food to you, or also some buffets). There are more expensive options, too, but we didn’t even look at those.
We opted for the quick and table service plan, especially when we learned that character meals (where you have a meal and get exclusive meetings with Disney characters) was included in the table service options. With the meal plan, you order your food, hand them your card – the same one that’s your room key and park admission – input your PIN, and go on your way. Super easy.
Seeing a price tag of $700-ish for a week of meals for four looks outrageous at first. But now that we’re home, I added up the receipts of what we would have spent on all of those meals and snacks, and realized we saved A LOT of money. Theme parks aren’t cheap for food, but we also thought the food quality was excellent and still have great memories of the two princess meals we were able to get in on. Portion sizes are also very large, so you may find yourself using your snack credit for a light breakfast in the morning or saving some of your meal for later.
Also? If you have a child who occasionally is too excited to eat, it’s better to pay the discounted price for a meal she’ll demand and then take two bites of and say she’s not hungry rather than the full price. (That would be Mira, for anyone wondering.)
Tip #3: Make your dining reservations early – BEFORE your trip.
Whether you’re using the dining plan or not, if you want to eat at certain locations make sure you have reservations or you may have no chance of getting in. You can call Disney or make reservations on their website up to 180 days before your trip. Want to have dinner at the new Be Our Guest restaurant in Fantasyland? Good luck – it filled up so fast we weren’t even able to get a reservation.
The character dining also disappears super fast, and you’re better off making reservations for any table meal rather than hoping for a table with a long wait and cranky kids. We did reservations for all of our table meals and never had to wait more than five minutes to be seated. It means you have to be a little more committed to a schedule, but for us that was better than the alternative of long waits or not getting to visit the restaurants we wanted to eat at.
Side note: if you have food allergies, tell them when you make the reservations. Aaron is gluten-free, and I noted that on all of our reservations. And for each table service meal, the chef personally came out to speak with us and let us know what was safe for him to eat. (Yes, really!!)
At the Sci-Fi Dine-in Restaurant, the chef made gluten-free croutons for Aaron so he didn’t have to have a Caesar salad without croutons. (The chef insisted that the salad would be lacking without croutons!) And at Cinderella’s Royal Table, the chef prepared gluten-free rolls with an herb & olive-oil dip just for Aaron while the kids and I had regular rolls and butter. We were so impressed that Disney goes out of their way to help those with food allergies feel welcome and well-fed.
Aaaaaand…that’s enough for one post. I’ve got another set of tips coming for once you’re in the parks, including a big recommendation for those who have kids with special needs.