There are two kinds of people out there: those who have a Disney World problem and those who do not.*
(*and, technically, there is a third kind: those who don’t yet know they have a Disney World problem)
My name is Kim and I have a Disney World problem.
You might know people like me and roll your eyes. You might swear this will never be you (and maybe it won’t — but I’ve won bets with far worse odds before).
Or, you might email me and ask for my help in planning your trip, which I’m happy to do (as long as you aren’t rolling your eyes at me).
How do you know if you have a Disney World problem? It’s a little different for everyone, but for me, it sort of looks like this:
- It means that I’m booking a hotel about seven to eight months in advance.
- It means that I’m at my computer at precisely 6am exactly 180 days before arrival to secure dining reservations.
- It means that, last night, at the stroke of midnight, I was back on the computer to secure my FastPass reservations at my earliest opportunity for rides and attractions, with a priority list and Plan B in hand.
- And it probably means that I will be thinking about how to plan my next trip there before I leave the WDW property on this year’s trip.
Other tell-tale signs include seeking out and commiserating with other like-minded Disneyphiles — perhaps comparing notes on FastPass selections and meal reservation strategies. I know who my people are. And there is always someone who knows more — like a Yoda of Disney planning.
But let’s just address the real question here: What the hellllllll?
Let me be clear, friends. I do not know what I’m packing in my kids’ lunch bags tomorrow. I have no idea what they will be handing out for Valentine’s Day later this week. And I certainly have not started to think about any of our plans for March.
But, damn it, I’ve known since October where we’re eating one meal a day for an entire week this April.
I know. I knowwwww. It seems insane.
Most people who know me don’t take me for a Disney World person. I can see that. For starters, I don’t sing aloud or dress with animated characters on my shirts. Also, I hate crowds, I have very little patience, require SPF 6 million, and am known to be more than a touch cynical.
At first blush, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
So, how did this happen?
And, (I can hear the fear in your voices) — can it happen to you? *GASP*
Yes. Yes, it can.
The truth is that I wasn’t born this way, and the road to having a legit WDW problem was gradual and almost imperceptible. I’ve been conditioned over time by two things that have gone hand in hand at WDW: experience and failure.
I started off all breezy with my first trip to WDW, when my kids were just three and one (and a non-existent third). It was a little side trip from my mom’s place in Florida while we were visiting her. We had a hotel for two nights and a couple of loose dining ideas. We figured we’d just play it by ear. We’d just see how it goes. We’re not Those Crazy Disney People.
I never say this, but: LOLOLOLOLOL.
The ultimate WDW rookie mistake.
Because you know what doesn’t work? Winging anything at all with young kids in a theme park among tens of thousands of other people.
Here, let me explain.
Raise your hand if your kids are exactly zero of these things in a theme park environment:
Raise your hand again if your kids are likely to exhibit most/all of these traits in a theme park environment:
- Sensory overload
See?! We’re more alike than you thought!
And so, what I quickly figured out was this: The only way to turn a WDW trip from a series of kids’ meltdowns to an actual fun family vacation that’s worth the expense is to plan the absolute shit out of it.
As a result, I have a few guidelines that I live by when planning our trip:
- I want to stay as close to the Magic Kingdom as possible with minimal bus rides to the parks. Because Disney Magic does not include making your kids behave on public transportation.
- I want to be able to sit down for dinner. Inside. I don’t need a steak by any means, but please do not make me spend 52 minutes standing in a buffet line with my kids, while balancing 16 trays and knowing that I’m paying $25/kid for them to eat a few grapes and possibly some Mickey-shaped pasta.
- In the camp of Well, That’s Fucking Obvious: I want to not stand in a 240-minute line for the best rides. It’s such a joy to navigate kids through the zig-zag ropes in the blazing Florida sun. Please don’t climb on that. Please don’t remove the rope from the chain. Please don’t step on that person. Please don’t.step.on.that.person. Yes, just another 127 minutes. Please don’t climb on that. Translation: I can stay at home for free if I want to see my kids totally lose their damn minds.
So, guess how many of those things you can do by winging it? You get the idea.
Wait, let’s address the naysaying for a sec.
Oh, but that’s no fun to have everything planned. It’s sooooo stressfullllll.
That doesn’t sound like a vacation at allllll.
How can anyone even enjoy that?
I’ve heard it all. Haters gonna hate. That’s because they’re on the 45-minute line for the buffet while I’m sitting down with kids’ menus in one hand and a glass of cold white wine in the other.
If you think this sounds miserable and distinctly un-vacation-y, let me reassure you that flexibility has not gone off to die while we’re on this trip. Nobody is running a stopwatch or issuing a fun quota — I promise. In fact, apart from some of the must-do items, we invariably move a bunch of plans around once we’re there to accommodate whichever unexpected and inevitable situation arises with kids.
The plan is actually just a framework of which parks we’ll visit on which days, with our top choices for rides FastPassed and a place to have dinner. You can only get three FastPasses upfront per day, so we’re not talking about a regimented minute-by-minute walking path for the day here. Yes, we make unexpected stops and unscheduled decisions. Yes, there’s room for ice cream. Yes, there are many hours spent just swimming in the hotel pool, which means many pretty cocktails with little umbrellas for me.
But I’m not giving up my dining reservations unless some serious shit has gone down or I’ve made some unforeseen scheduling error.
Do I love sit-down meals with three kids under nine? Not especially. Some days, there’s a clear element of OMG-we-should-not-eat-in-public. And it’s not about wanting to eat anything particularly fancy. It’s more about needing the oasis of a reserved table in the air conditioning once a day to break from the crowds and madness. It’s a great re-charge.
Also, there’s an odd environmental phenomenon that occurs within WDW. The whole of Central Florida experiences a synchronized ravenous hunger spell at about 4:45 every day. All of the people on WDW property. Everyone around you. So, in that moment, go ahead and have a look at the spontaneous dining options and then at the hordes of the famished — and then do the math (fun fact: the average number of people in the Magic Kingdom on a single day is 53,000). If you decided, in the name of being breezy, to just wing it, I applaud you and sincerely hope your number of buffet line minutes is less than your age times 12, or that maybe the street-side turkey leg the size of your skull has enough sauce on it. Hopefully, as our kids get older, we’ll have more flexibility with this and less “we will die if we don’t eat within everyone’s picky specifications right this second.”
Outside of where we want to eat, there are considerations to make about which parks to hit on which days. Average crowd levels, Extra Magic Hours (when the park opens early/closes late for those staying on WDW property — translation: way more crowded) and can we make it in time for Rope Drop?
(Rope Drop: The moment the park opens its gates first thing in the morning. Also known as the only thing my family is ever early for in the history of everything. The later you are after Rope Drop, the bigger the lines.)
Ok, and if I’m being honest, there is some sick satisfaction that people like me get from knowing the system, getting the reservations we want and working every possible cog in the WDW machine (What? The Child Ride Swap? This is legit? Yes, it is.) Every year, there’s something I didn’t know before and I add it to my grand planning insanity. I’ve come too far now to go back to winging it. And it’s silly not to pay this information forward. As I type, I’m helping two friends plan their inaugural WDW trips and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have their initial itineraries mentally planned out for later this year.
I wouldn’t even call my Disney Problem that severe. I’m more in the moderate-to-intense camp. There are many true WDW ninjas who vacation among us, and you probably wouldn’t know just by looking at them. In everyday life, they might be doctors, yoga instructors, stay-at-home parents or waitresses. But once they start planning that trip, it’s a whole other gig. Plenty of folks have a walking plan optimized for the day and know the exact order of the rides they’ll pursue. They stuff enough snacks and well-packed coolers under their strollers to be able to avoid the sit-down meal. They have children who pass out in said strollers (mine never have). They know where to stand for the parades and which side of Main Street, USA to walk along to get to Cinderella’s Castle more quickly.
And others wing it, either knowing or not knowing the consequences. It’s true that once your kids get older, there’s a lot more give in the plan. I’m not there yet. But even when that day comes, I think old habits will die hard. You’ll still find me on my laptop 180 days beforehand at 6am.
OK, maybe 6:15.