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10 tips for visiting Disney World

A vacation to the sprawling parks requires lots of planning

By Sjarif Goldstein

LAST UPDATED: 2:24 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

Any vacation takes planning, but it seems like a Disney trip puts even more of a premium on preparation. When you travel thousands of miles and spend thousands of dollars, you don't want to leave feeling you've missed something essential.

If Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., takes a little extra homework, getting ready for Disney World in Orlando, Fla. — which has four main parks and two water parks plus Downtown Disney — is like writing a senior thesis. It takes months of research and hours of "interviews" to make sure you do your best.

As my wife and I planned our family trip there last month, we were lucky enough to inherit some "cheat sheets" from a friend who had just gone. There are also sites all over the Internet that can tell you almost everything you need to know. Given that, I'm here to boil it all down for you into 10 tips for planning a vacation at Walt Disney World:

1. Work with a travel agent. Disney.com makes it easy to book a package, but a good travel agent can present you with options you might not think of, offer advice on which hotel or dining plan best fits your needs and answer questions you might have as the trip approaches (and you will have many). There are several such services on the Internet. On our friend Elsie's advice, I went with Mouseketrips.com, which guarantees you the best rates by promising to rebook your package if any new discounts or deals come up after you pay.

2. Stay on the property. On-site hotels come at a bit of a premium but have some clear advantages that make them worth it, such as free parking at the theme parks (a savings of $15 per day); shuttles, monorails or boats that take you right to the park entrance; and "Magic Hours," times when the parks open earlier or stay open later for Disney hotel guests. Also, you know what you're getting: Disney hotels have certain standards for upkeep, which your cheapest off-site options might not.

3. Don't dismiss the dining plan. I usually look at these add-ons with skepticism, but after analyzing the three plans offered, I found some wisdom from the Three Bears: The one in the middle is just right. For about $130 per day, a family of four (if both children are under age 10) gets one full-service meal, one quick-service meal and one snack each day. You won't want to eat all your meals on Disney grounds, but this will afford you enough meals for a few character-dining experiences and cover the meals you're going to want to eat at the theme parks so you don't face the decision of shelling out big money for theme-park prices (about $12 per adult for counter service) or leaving the park for cheaper eats.

4. Get a car and get it early. Most visitors to Disney World are going to rent a car at some point, whether it's to check out other area attractions such as Universal Studios and Sea World, go shopping at nearby outlet malls or make the obligatory pilgrimage to mainland-only eateries (Olive Garden, Sonic, etc.). My advice is to get that car early in the trip and make a stop at Walmart or Target to pick up supplies that will cost much more at a Disney property. For example, those spray fans that bring relief in the heat cost about $6 less off property. You can also pick up shirts to take home (either for yourself or as omiyage) for about half the price and some simple breakfast foods. Alamo and National rent cars right on the Disney property, so you can still take advantage of Disney's free Magical Express shuttle to and from the Orlando airport.

5. Don't underestimate the heat. When you're from Hawaii, the inclination can be to dismiss how heat might affect you in mainland locales. In the case of Orlando, that would be a mistake. In the summer months the heat can be stifling, even debilitating. Be sure to slather on the sunscreen each morning and keep water available (it's $3 a bottle at the parks). Give consideration to those spray fans. They're pricey, but there's a reason you see so many people carrying them.

6. Fantasmic is indeed fantastic. The perfect way to cap an active day at Hollywood Studios is by kicking back and watching this stunning water and light show. But making sure you see it can take a bit of planning as the schedule is seasonal. First, you'll want to pick your day at Hollywood Studios in advance based on whether the show is scheduled. Second, the amphitheater fits nearly 10,000 but seats can fill up fast. Assure yourself early entry by eating at one of three park restaurants that same day: Hollywood Brown Derby, Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano or Hollywood & Vine. Reservations for all Disney restaurants can be made up to six months in advance online or by phone, and you can always change them later.

7. Pay attention to park hours. One of my great regrets about our recent trip is that we gave Epcot short shrift. We'd often wind up there for dinner, but FastPasses would all be distributed. (For the uninitiated, FastPasses are tickets available at certain Disney rides that allow you to essentially make an appointment for an attraction. You get a FastPass, go off and do other stuff and return later to get on the ride with a significantly shorter wait.) The same can be true at Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom, both of which often close at 9 p.m. Take into account how quickly those FastPasses go and get to these parks early so you don't have to wait in line for 80 minutes to ride Soarin' (guilty as charged!). Also, some key characters stop meeting visitors relatively early, so if you have a 5-year-old daughter who will be heartbroken if she doesn't meet Tinkerbell, you might want to know that Tinkerbell often doesn't make appearances after 5 p.m. (Not that that almost happened to MY 5-year-old daughter, mind you.)

8. You can't do everything. Even a month isn't long enough to do Disney World right, so if your stay is short, you'll probably want to pick the parks that matter most to you. (Magic Kingdom is a given, and you can mix and match from the other three.) Once you get to a park, do as much as you can that day; hopping from park to park wastes travel time. If your stay is more than a week, try to spend at least one day at each park (including the water parks), allotting extra time for the Magic Kingdom, which just has more to do.

9. The water parks are worth it. Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach are musts for water park enthusiasts and offer a great break from the heat. Each has a signature tidal beach and raft rides and slides for kids of all ages. Both also have play areas for the littlest visitors.

10. Know your limits (and be ready to push them). I've never been a roller-coaster guy, and my wife, Jenni, can't go on anything with more motion than the teacups. But when we took our kids to Disneyland a few years ago, one of us had to step up. Though I feared nausea, I volunteered to go on any ride my 10-year-old son wanted to try. After Space Mountain put me on the verge of vomit, I was a little hesitant to try it again this time. Nevertheless, duty called. I survived it just fine and even had fun. So for those of you wary of the scariest rides, take heart. Start with something you're comfortable with and work your way up to the fastest rides. You only live once after all. (Bonus advice: Skip the motion-sickness medicine. Even the less drowsy Bonine made a big fella like me sluggish. After two days I stopped taking it.)

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