If you know me on social media you know that last week we surprised the kids with a trip to Disney. This was a trip nearly 2 years in the making (in order to pay for it all with cash… yikes!). Anyway, here are my randomly thrown together thoughts about what we did and what I’d do different if we ever did it again (doubtful… $$$). As a Virgo I felt the need to plan everything but I had no desire to become a Disney expert. So I tried to research as much as I could while allowing for some flexibility. Buckle up – this one is long.
The kids had NO IDEA we were planning this trip. We timed it during a 5 day weekend school break, they only missed 2 days of classroom time. We left on a Tuesday and came home on President’s Day Monday. We told them about the trip the evening before we left. My sister had sent them Mickey ears/hat along with autograph books, and we packed them up with the MagicBands and some Disney lanyards and had them open the box. They were kind of “deer in headlights” for several minutes. Just kind of “what? huh?”. After a full explanation they were super excited (and then had a hard time sleeping that night!)
We were lucky that my parents graciously offered use of a 2 bedroom Marriott Villa for 5 nights. Cypress Harbour to be exact (Marriott has at least 3 villa properties near Disney). Since we had 5-day park passes we also booked a single night at Disney’s French Quarter hotel – it was coincidence that we were there on Mardi Gras which was fun.
While the French Quarter was a very nice resort I am so glad we didn’t stay there for the whole trip. Mostly because it’s a simple, small hotel room with 2 queen beds and a tiny bathroom. There were a few minor issues (the beds weren’t that comfortable and the mattresses made a crinkling sound when you moved), but the location was pretty and we enjoyed walking around the grounds of the entire Port Orleans resort. Since it was Mardi Gras (or not? I don’t know if they do this all the time) they were giving out beads and noisemakers as we checked in. We had upgraded to a pool-view room and had a great corner room (which we requested and got), but even hardy northern kids draw the line at swimming in 55 degree weather so we enjoyed the view but not the water.
We walked to the Riverside part of the resort for dinner at Boatwright’s Dining Hall which was very good. (Oh, I need to mention that the staff at French Quarter told us we could take a water taxi from our side of the resort over to Riverside… but when we got to the dock we learned that service ends at 4:30pm and they switch to only doing water runs to Disney Springs. Very un-Disney-like to give wrong information). Breakfast was at the quick-service Sassagoula right by our room. It was fine; people rave about the beignets – Mark and I found them just ok.
The biggest reason we booked at night at a Disney resort (aside from the 30% discount running when we booked which made it the same price as a nearby Holiday Inn or Fairfield) was the “free” MagicBands and a day of free parking at the Magic Kingdom. (MagicBands cost $20 each if you want them but aren’t staying on-property, parking is $20 per day at the parks but if you’re a guest you get a parking pass). So, we saved $100 in those perks – It was totally worth the one night.
The rest of the stay we were at Cypress Harbour and it was SO GREAT to have some breathing room, two bathrooms, a washer and dryer, and a full kitchen. A bit smaller than our Marriott resort in Hilton Head but still more than enough to be comfortable. The kids shared a room with Matilda in the queen bed and Madman on a pull-out couch. Mark and I had a huge master suite with a ridiculously enormous jetted tub. I laughed at it when we got there but was so grateful for it as the miles of walking racked up and I was able to have an epsom salt soak after a long day in the parks. My parents joined us for 2 nights and they had the living room pull-out couch. The resort itself was very pretty with all kinds of activities (which we didn’t use much) including an arcade, 2 pools, rental paddle boats and kayaks, and a huge activity center that had nightly movies and ice cream. It was a pretty standard Marriott villa experience (with bonus daily housekeeping which is not a normal “owner” perk) which means it was way WAY better than a standard hotel. It was only a 10-15 minute drive to each park, too, and we liked having our own car for use to and from the parks. I would stay here again in a heartbeat.
We had a pretty aggressive plan to hit all 4 parks while we were there. We had standard 5-day passes (no park hopper) so we had the option of going back to one location on our final day. Since we didn’t fully book/pay for the trip until about 40 days before we got there we didn’t have our first choices for dining reservations or fast passes, since people can book those 90 days out. And honestly? I found the fast pass system kind of confusing and stressful. We got what we could but after the fact I feel like it wasn’t totally worth it. Anyway, we planned to get to the parks early since the kids wake up before 7 am, and play the day by ear for departure time. Here’s what we ended up doing:
Wednesday: Magic Kingdom. We followed all the advice and got there about 45 minutes before the gates opened at 9. We scored amazing parking just steps from the ticket and transportation center. I had forgotten how complicated it is just to GET to the Magic Kingdom. The monorail wasn’t working that morning so we took a chilly boat ride across the lake. By the time our bags were checked by security we were in line at the gate about 10 minutes before they did the opening celebration.
Based on recommendations from TouringPlans.com (I HIGHLY recommend this website and app for true wait times and expected crowd levels – their info was spot-on) we knew we wanted to get to the 7 Dwarf ride quickly but we did a quick stop to see Mickey on Main Street. And we were his first visitors!! Yes, we had to bribe Matilda to even get near him and Madman refused to be in a pic, but at least we got to meet him and get it done, even though we forgot to get his autograph in the kids’ books. Then we were able to get some great pics with the castle since there weren’t many people there.
While Mark and Matilda waited in a 40 minute line for the roller coaster Madman and I rode the Pooh ride and walked around. He wasn’t too sure about any rides so I couldn’t coax him on anything else while we waited. We had a snack and watched dozens of the 7 Dwarf trains go by as we waited. Madman LOVED playing on Tom Sawyer Island where he and Mark spent time while Matilda and I rode Thunder Mountain. He was honestly upset to discover “the park” we kept talking about was not indeed a playground. So being able to romp around the island was perfect for him. Matilda had a great time on Splash Mountain with Mark and we caught the afternoon parade as it went through Frontierland. We ate lunch and dinner at quick service spots – nothing memorable. We had to coax Madman on the Pirate ride but he loved it even though he was nervous. He adored the Swiss Family tree house, too. Matilda had a blast with the A Pirate’s Adventure, using the talisman to complete missions throughout Adventureland. Both kids loved the Jungle Cruise. No one would ride the Magic Carpets, Dumbo, the Tea Cups or the Carrousel. Peter Pan’s Flight was another favorite for both kids and Matilda insisted on riding Small World (the song is still stuck in my head).
We were still going strong after dinner even though it was getting chilly. Matilda met some princesses via a Fastpass (she insisted she was too old for but she really enjoyed meeting them) and then we rode Stitch’s Great Escape, which was not what we were expecting but everyone survived. Matilda and Mark went to ride Space Mountain, which broke down while they were in line, so they rode the Astro Orbiter instead. That was when Madman discovered his love for the People Mover (I think he rode it at least 7 times in the 2 days we were at Magic Kingdom!). Since we were there so late I insisted we stay for the Electric Light Parade so we planted ourselves in a spot near the end of Main Street. It was great to see Matilda wave at everyone and Madman’s wide-eyed stare. Matilda even shouted “Cinderella! I know her!” as her carriage went by… you’re never too old for princesses.
Keeping your space during the parade is no joke. We had people jostling into us and pushing to get closer to the street. Mark and I managed to box out for the kids so they could watch without getting bumped. But it meant constant pushing from the people behind us. Not the best way to end the day but the kids loved it and I picked up some ideas for future space-saving by watching others around us. This is also where I will remind you that if you got glow necklaces at the dollar store before you left like you should, that it’s a good idea to actually take them to the park with you! I forgot 3 times.
All in all we spent a whopping 12.5 hours at Magic Kingdom and clocked in at 8.5 miles for the day. Touring Plans said the crowds were 6/10 and I would agree. Didn’t feel crowded at all.
Wednesday: Hollywood Studios. There was some strategy to picking which park we would go to each day. We had to have a plan so we could make reservations, and I didn’t want MK and Epcot to be back-to-back due to their size. The predicted crowd level at Hollywood Studios for this day was only 4 out of 10, so it seemed like a great choice. My parents were joining us for this day and Matilda was excited about our lunch reservations at the 50’s Prime Time Café because “grandma and grandpa will feel like kids again!” Thanks to Megan and her instagrams (she was at Disney a few days before we were) I knew that we needed to get there early to be part of Jedi training. Her tip got us there about 40 minus before the park opened and thank goodness because they opened the gates at 8:30 instead of the listed 9am! So we hurried over to the line to sign up and Matilda got her training assignment for right after lunch. Our Fastpasses for the day (India Jones, Star Tours and Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster) were in the late afternoon so we had much of the day to wander.
From that line we headed to Toy Story Mania as everything I read said this was the longest line in the park. It was a 30 minute wait at 9:10 and we hopped in line after posing with an Army Man.
About 15 minutes later Madman declared he had to go to the bathroom. Half of a family not far ahead of us in line had just left for the same reason. So Mark took him and asked at the door if he could re-join us after the pit stop. He was told no because the line was now too long. Of course, the father son duo that left about 2 minutes before them were allowed to rejoin their family in line. I was NOT HAPPY. Matilda and I had a blast on the ride and I knew Madman would love it, too. I was sad that the line was 90+ minutes for the rest of the day so he never got the chance. However we DID learn our lesson that before getting into any long line we needed to make the kids go. We had another poor incident with this ride later in the afternoon when they wouldn’t allow my father, who was in a motorized scooter due to a disability that won’t allow him to walk distances, enter the ride because he “didn’t have the right ticket”…this was after having zero issues with rides and shows all day. They said he needed to have some special disability access attached to his ticket, which was the first time we had ever heard about that (and my parents have been in the Disney parks several times in the last few years with no issues like this). We didn’t peruse it at the time but I was really disappointed with how he was treated by the Toy Story Mania staff.
Anyway…Mark and Madman spent the time waiting for us to do Toy Story playing in the Honey I Shrunk the Kids playground which was empty for most of the time they were there. They both really enjoyed it. Lunch at the Café was great. Delicious food and a wonderful vibe – thanks to April and Mo for the recommendation! The kids marveled at the small TVs and my parents loved how authentic the decor, and the waitress/”mom” was.
After lunch was the big thrill – Jedi Training Academy. Matilda got in her spot and got geared up to be trained in the ways of the Jedi. It was great and she loved it (even if she hid behind another kid when Darth Maul came out at the end)! It was one of her favorite experiences of the trip and she has been so excited to share the video and pictures with anyone who will listen.
We caught MuppetVision 3D and The Great Movie Ride (the kids rode much of this with their heads down and ears covered due to the shooting and Alien scene) before we split up — Mark and Matilda had Fastpass for the Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster — Madman, my parents and I to Lights, Motors, Action! which Madman gave 2 thumbs up. Mark and Matilda thought the Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster was the best ride in any park by far and the only thing that could be deemed Cedar Point-worthy. Then we spent some time checking out all the Star Wars displays in Star Wars Launch Bay.
By then it time for us to see the Indiana Jones Stunt Show – which Matilda loved and Madman tolerated (too loud). By the time it ended it was dinner time and my parents headed back to the condo while we stayed for food and our Star Tours Fastpass time. We were nervous about Madman and Star Tours but he LOVED it (I, however, nearly lost my dinner). We didn’t think there were any fireworks that night but as we were buying a t-shirt on the way out of the park they started. So, we got to see the show set to Star Wars music before we left.
Stats: another 12 hour day and 8.75 miles walked in the parks. I was getting a decent blister on my foot.
Friday: Epcot. My parents were headed home today so we said our goodbyes before heading off to Epcot. We “took it easy” this morning and didn’t arrive until about 9:00 am. Seriously – how can the kids walk that much, stay up at least an hour past normal bedtimes and still pop out of bed by 6:30 each morning? I was hoping to stay until the fireworks.
We had Fastpasses for Turtle Talk, Spaceship Earth and Test Track along with dinner reservations at Via Napoli. When we entered a cast member offered to take our photo using our phone and then we spotted Pluto with a very short line and stopped for autographs and photos.
From there we went to The Sea to ride Nemo & Friends. On the way we passed both Baymax AND Mickey both with short lines but the kids declined to meet them. We hopped right on Nemo and then 45 seconds into the ride it…stopped. After being stuck for about 10 minutes we were walked off and given paper Fastpasses to come back later. So, we checked out the aquarium for a bit before going to Mission: Space we crossed our fingers it wouldn’t terrify Madman. By the time we got on *I* was terrified because they warned us several times about motion sickness and the ride had barf bags. We all loved it (we rode green which doesn’t spin) and Madman is telling everyone that he drove a spaceship. While Mark and Matilda designed their own ride with Sum of All Thrills, Madman and I checked out Innovention. We used our Fastpasses for Turtle Talk (super cute) then went on Nemo which was working again. We stopped by The Land to rest while we rode the boat (Soarin’ was closed during our trip).
Our lunch plans were to snack through the countries and we did just that. Starting with croughnuts (croissant doughnuts) outside of Canada then working through pastries in France, sushi and udon in Japan, and of course pretzels and beer in Germany. Man, I love Epcot.
Matilda got to play her first round of Agent P’s Adventure and it was SO COOL. This was her favorite thing at Epcot and Mark and I were smitten with it as well. We only saw a few other kids doing it and, for us, it was totally worth the time and was magical.
After our loop we had to head back up to Spaceship Earth for (which Madman called the “Time Machine”) for our Fastpass. Then we did a spin through the Figment ride which is so cheesy and I loved it…the kids enjoyed the “hopping” fountain outside more than the ride.
We had early dinner reservations in Italy so we had to walk back to that side of the lake. Dinner was wonderful – we all really enjoyed this meal and I was so glad to have reservations as people were being told it was an hour wait at 5:00. After dinner we headed up to the Test Track and, to our shock, Madman wanted to ride. We held our breath again and braced for a bad reaction to the fast part but once again he loved it. Another 2 thumbs up from him (the kid who had to be BRIBED to ride the Pooh ride at MK!). From there we still needed to ride the boat in Mexico (and get nachos and churros, natch). And the kids still had more stamps to collect from a few of the countries so we did ANOTHER loop around the lake, hitting Mexico first and stopping in China for another round of Agent P’s Adventure and then finding the Kidcot spots in each country.
We got a spot for the fireworks between Canada and the path back to Future World. Of course it was crowded and of course Matilda had to use the bathroom 3 minutes before the show started. And, honestly? It wasn’t worth us staying… I remember IllumiNations being amazing but we were totally underwhelmed by the show this time. Bummer.
However, Epcot is where we finally found Rey pins after literally looking in dozens of shops in Disney Springs, Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. So – good job, Epcot… you’ve always been my favorite!
Stats: The crowd was predicted to be 6/10 and I think that was right. We somehow managed a third day of 12+ hours and walked a ridiculous 14 miles. I was shocked the kids were still upright.
Saturday: Animal Kingdom. We were all feeling the previous 3 days today. Animal Kingdom was on the agenda and our rough plan was to spend a half day there. We had no Fastpasses and hoped to get there early enough to ride Kilimanjaro and Everest early then just roam. When we walked in we asked a Disney photographer to take a family shot of us on my phone. Right before he did the Winged Encounter show took place and dozens of macaws swarmed overhead… very unexpected and very cool.
We were able to get on the safari with a very short wait and the kids loved seeing all the animals. Then Mark and Matilda went to ride Everest while Madman and I rode the train to Conservation Station. Then we switched off and I rode Everest with Matilda while Mark and Madman played in the Boneyard playground. We were bummed to find Discovery Island Trails closed so we couldn’t check out the Tree. And the kids didn’t want to see any shows (like It’s Tough to be a Bug). So we grabbed some lunch and then waited in line for Dinosaur! which was way, way more intense then we expected but the kids liked it (1 thumb up from Madman).
After that we headed home where the kids were thrilled to get some pool time. After dinner Matilda and I rented a boat and Madman won a ton of tickets in the arcade… his prize? Fake teeth. Everyone had a good Epsom salt soak in the giant tub and we were all in bed by 8:30.+
We’re on a boat!
Final sats: 7 miles and we were all exhausted.
Sunday, our last day, back to Magic Kingdom: I was determined to see the fireworks at Magic Kingdom since we didn’t stay the first night. Matilda still had to ride Space Mountain and Mark hadn’t had a chance to ride Thunder Mountain. I hadn’t set up any Fastpasses for this day and was surprised to snag morning times for Space Mountain, the Speedway and Buzz Lightyear at the last minute. We decided to get there when the park opened at 8 so we could do all three rides, then head home for a disco nap and some pool time before heading back at 7 for fireworks.
Magic Kingdom is nearly empty at 8 am on an Sunday!
We got there before the opening ceremony again (and had rockstar parking again) and headed right to Space Mountain where Mark and I took turns riding with Matilda while Madman had 2 more chances to cruise on the People Mover. There were no lines for anything in Tomorrowland but we skipped the Speedway and Buzz Lightyear since we had fast passes for later in the morning. We headed back to Thunder Mountain but stopped to say hello to Rafiki on the way. Madman and I took another trip through an empty Swiss Family Treehouse and while the others rode; we took the train back to Fantasyland where I forced everyone to ride Dumbo with me. The kids were more impressed with the play area in the line.
We had the tree house to ourselves
When we got back to Tomorrowland for our Fastpasses and discovered I accidentally got passes for 8:30, 9:30 and 10:15 PM instead of AM. DOH! We ended up waiting for 30 min for the Speedway and skipped the Buzz ride since the line was 45 min. I was so mad, since we could have walked right on to each ride after riding Space Mountain that morning. But, while in line for the Speedway I was able to get lunch reservations at the Jungle Navigation Co., recommended by Jen so all was not lost. Mark and Matilda rode the Haunted Mansion while Madman and I went through the Swiss Family Treehouse again and then caught some of the Move It Shake It Parade by surprise. We danced with the Genie and Chip with Mickey right above us. Lunch was fantastic – by far the best food we had in the Magic Kingdom. On the way out of the park we snapped some castle pics and I scoped out good firework viewing locations. It was getting crazy crowded.
Back at the condo we all napped for a bit then the kids swam for an hour in 68 degree weather while the locals were in parkas and scarves. We had dinner at home then packed up to head back to the park around 7. It had been chilly once the sun went down so we loaded up the coats and I finally remembered the dollar store glow necklaces. I also packed a beach towel to help save our fireworks spot.
We arrived around 7:00 and Main Street was already packed with people for the electric light parade. Lots of Disney sites recommend the area in front of The Crystal Palace as a prime fireworks viewing location so I headed in that direction. It was already full with strollers and people so we walked around a bit and found that the walkway in front of the firework Fastpass viewing area was ideal. A place to sit, no one in front of you and a great view of the castle. At 7:15 there were only a few people there so I laid out the beach towel and Mark offered to sit while I took the kids to the Carousel of Progress. Then we switched off and he went to Sleepy Hollow for a waffle and hot chocolate.
This! This is a fantastic spot to watch the shows. A++ would do it again.
Just be prepared to stake your territory. A beach towel helps a ton.
We looked crazy, staking out our spot nearly 2 hours before the show but had a great spot to see most of the parade, and perfect view of Celebrate the Magic (the projection show on the castle) and Wishes fireworks. And since the area to our backs was a walkway kept clear by Cast Members, it never seemed too crowded. The view – well, it was amazing and the perfect end to our trip.
Final stats on our last day in a park? 8.5 miles.
Overall stats including our first day at the French Quarter? 56 miles walked. Holy crap.
What Would I Do Differently?
My sister, a much bigger Disneyphile than I, has heard good things about this service and if we ever went back I think we’d use it or something similar. Without dedicating serious study and time to booking Fastpasses and reservations you end up ping-ponging back and fourth across the parks and I kept feeling like “there has to be a better way”. I used TouringPlans.com a ton to help plan before we left but honestly? I would pay the $250 for someone else to do the planning. It’s just so overwhelming – especially when this may be your ONLY Disney trip (we have no plans to go back in the next few years). We had Fastpasses for each day but they meant we were walking all over to get to the right rides at the right time. Anyway – when you’re spending a boatload just to get in the gate, another $250 for an expert to plan a custom itinerary that will reduce walking and waiting time? Money well spent in my opinion.
Take a bigger backpack. I had a decent size cross-body bag and Mark ended up carrying Madman’s drawstring backpack and we often wished for a bit more room for our stuff. Part of that was because the mornings and evenings were chilly so jackets were a must. Plus you can bring food and drinks in the parks so we were able to stash snacks and water bottles. Add sunscreen and sun hats, and a place to put the kids’ Mickey ears when they didn’t want them – a full size backpack would have been much better.
I’m not sure I would change anything else. Going in February meant great weather. It was chilly our first day and a few nights it was chilly after sunset but I’d prefer that to being hot. We had beautiful, sunny blue skies every day and crowds were low (except for Saturday and Sunday). I’m glad we hit each park early because the first hour or two were very very low crowds. It was nice to be able to zip through the parks and hop right on rides.
After reading about several people being late or frustrated with the Disney transportation I was happy to have our own car.
After reading so much about pin trading I got the kids lanyards and they picked out 2 pins to start out with when we got there. Madman refused to trade since he wanted to keep the pins he selected. Matilda only traded once and then she lost one of the pins we bought. So, I’m glad I didn’t invest in pins before we left like I contemplated.
We got a BubbleBum inflatable booster seat and it worked perfectly… easy to stash in my carry on while traveling and Madman loved it.
Finally… Disney, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?!? All my girl wanted was a Rey t-shirt and a Rey pin. As I mentioned above we started looking right away – both at Disney Springs (formerly known as Downtown Disney) and at our resort. All the shirts we found were women’s and way too big for her. No one had the pin. Even at Hollywood Studios which is dripping with Star Wars… no Rey pins or kids shirts. We asked at several shops and most people looked at me like I was nuts for wanting Rey stuff. Finally one young cast member replied “it’s SO BAD right? So many people ask for kids shirts and we’ve totally missed the boat. She’s the STAR of the movie!” There were dozens of Kylo/Finn/Poe/BB8 shirts, toys and pins everywhere of course, but only two toys with Rey and no kids shirts to be found. I was SO EXCITED to finally find the pin at Epcot, of all places.