A skeptic's guide to Disney

After years of naysaying, my husband and I somewhat reluctantly took our kids to Walt Disney World. Here's what we learned

The question had dogged my husband and me for years, like the ticking alligator in Peter Pan: “When will you take us to Disney World?” And when we’d tell our three kids it was simply too expensive, too commercial, too crowded and Mom was no good on rides anyway, their expectant faces would drop. But so would the topic of trips to Disney. At least for a while.

Then something changed. My children suddenly seemed to be growing up very quickly and I wanted them to have a cool family trip as a point of memory — you know, 10 years from now, during some warm and fuzzy family moment, one of my three would say wistfully, “Remember how much fun we had at Disney?” So in a moment of pre-nostalgia, I agreed to the big Disney trip, but my skeptical heart insisted on plenty of research along with the booking and paying. And I learned a lot on the way.

If you’re thinking of going to “the happiest place on earth,” read on for this jaded journalist’s take on what’s truly magical and what’s just a little Mickey Mouse.

Prep and arrival

Magical
• The cast members (the term for all Disney staff) on the information and reservation phone lines were mostly helpful, friendly and contagiously cheerful. One helped me choose restaurants for all of our dinners (I’d been advised to book sit-down meals at the more popular restaurants 180 days in advance), which we based on which parks had nighttime Extra Magic Hours (see Worth considering).

• Disney sites (disney.com and disneyworld.ca) are good sources for pricing, virtual tours of the resorts, schedules for Extra Magic Hours and fireworks shows, and information on restaurants and “character dining” — Disney characters show up at certain venues.

• In the weeks before we left, we were mailed special luggage tags. This meant that after we checked in our bags at the airport in Toronto, Disney staff would get them to our room for us — no fuss, no muss. This is one of the benefits of staying on Walt Disney World (WDW) property (see Worth considering). We also got coupons, our transportation and hotel vouchers, and a DVD showcasing the four parks (Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and Epcot) and two water parks (Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon). Guess what we watched the night before we left…

• As promised, when we arrived at the airport in Orlando, we were guided to the Disney Magical Express coach and driven right to our resort. The front desk gave my kids stickers and all of us My First Trip buttons. My two daughters also got It’s My Birthday buttons, as we were celebrating their big days on our trip.

A little Mickey Mouse
• We felt a little duped by what I’d call “the oversell.” For instance, I was told our family suite at the All-Star Music value resort had two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a kitchenette. That wasn’t quite true: It had two bathrooms, a kitchenette, one bedroom and a walk-in sitting room with a pullout couch. When I called to find out if there had been a mistake, I was bounced back and forth from front desk to reservations, each of whom claimed it wasn’t their responsibility before signing off with “Have a magical day!” Still, for the amount of time we actually spent at the suite, what we got worked quite well — and economically — for us.

The parks

Magical
• The level of organization is impressive. For instance, because we stayed on site, we were bused — for free — from our hotel to any of the parks and back. At the parks themselves, we were able to use our time well, since the most popular rides have the Fastpass system where you can get a reserved time slot to avoid lineups. But the attractions also had digital wait-time clocks so you’d know roughly how long you’d be standing in line and could decide whether to go for it or try later.

• Staying on site also meant we got to use the almighty room-key card — the credit-card-like key to our room. Embedded in the magnetic strip were our park tickets, meal plan information and credit card numbers, so we could buy anything at the park and have it charged to our room — no need to carry cash.

• The attention to detail charmed me and my husband. At Animal Kingdom, the Expedition Everest ride is set up like a real climbers’ village in Nepal — right down to the tinned goods on dusty shelves to the bare light bulbs hanging from electrical cords. Same deal with my youngest child’s favour-ite ride — the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror in Hollywood Studios. You would think that you were walking into an abandoned first-class, art-deco-era hotel. It made waiting in line worthwhile.

• We didn’t expect it, but the 3-D shows we took in (It’s Tough to Be a Bug and The Muppets) were surprisingly good. Even my husband commented: “This is 3-D the way it’s supposed to be.”

• On their birthdays, my girls wore their buttons and cast members — from ride attendants to princesses in designated character spots — wished them “Happy Birthday” all day. It made us all smile.

A little Mickey Mouse
• The oversell hit my kids at the Soarin’, a virtual-reality ride at Epcot that failed to live up to that promotional DVD (they thought they’d actually be flying). And this after a 70-minute lineup — the longest we encountered.

• We splurged and got the “park hopper” tickets so that we could, in theory, hit more than one park a day. Ha! We barely managed to cover one — even when we stayed to the bitter end. We should have been more realistic — and saved $200.

• OMG, some rides at Magic Kingdom don’t seem to have changed an iota in 25 years. Want proof? Just go on It’s a Small World (I dare you). Ditto for the Haunted Mansion, which my kids rated as “lame.”

• Must we really be forced to walk through a themed gift shop after every major attraction? Nothing like having to say “No, we’re not buying that” 20 times to lose your roller-coaster buzz.

The food

Magical
• We opted for the meal plan — which meant we were entitled to one full sit-down meal, one cafeteria-style meal and one snack each per night at WDW — and at $22 per person per day, it was a good deal. Some of our favourite sit-down dinners were at Hollywood & Vine (where there was an all-you-can-eat buffet with everything from kid-friendly hot dogs and macaroni to glazed salmon and spring greens) and Boma (in Animal Kingdom Resort), where the massive buffet featured African-spiced main and side dishes.

• For those of us who don’t like everything deep-fried, it was nice that even with the cafeteria-style meals, you could still get healthier choices. I filled up on the Mediterranean salad at Pinocchio’s when we were in Magic Kingdom — but the kids still wanted burgers and fries.

A little Mickey Mouse
• The child version of the meal plan was a little problematic. For one, the limited selections didn’t always appeal to my seven-year-old daughter. Second, because the cut-off age for the kids’ menus is nine, my nugget-loving 10-year-old son was often out of luck and stuck trying to figure out what grown-up meal he’d like (not many).

• I was disappointed that our caf-style meals were served on disposable plastic dishes. That’s a lot of garbage.

• Given all that we know about childhood obesity, it’s surprising to see a standard serving of a soft drink at Disney is at least 700 mL. Even my husband and I started splitting one soda!

• While the food at the restaurants was unquestionably tasty, the service was often agonizingly slow. Even with the Hollywood & Vine buffet at the Hollywood Studios park, we waited more than 15 minutes just to get our drinks. Good thing the food was self-serve.

• On our last night, we celebrated my youngest’s birthday at Cinderella’s Royal Table in the famous Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom. We were all excited and had obviously really hyped the occasion. We sat down only to find out that it took more than the usual meal plan “points” (though no one had told me this when I’d made the reservation six months earlier) and we had to pay more than $100 extra for our dinner — and the kids barely touched their meals. This kind of took the glow off our birthday celebration.

Despite the odd hiccup, mix-up or lineup, the magic side of the Disney trip won us over — hands down. In retrospect, it was a ton of fun for very little effort because the level of service and attention to detail is so remarkable. Because of this, I was able to enjoy seeing my kids being unabashedly kids. My newly minted 13-year-old wore Mickey Mouse ears for the entire trip, sported Disney pins and collected character autographs with the same enthusiasm as my seven-year-old. Even my preteen son was able to drop his too-cool persona to meet his favourite character, Goofy.

In fact, we all embraced our inner Goofy — it’s just that kind of place. And guess what? Motion-sick Mama braved every ride.

Worth considering

Timing Sure it would be great to spend Christmas/spring break/summer holidays at Disney. That’s why so many people do, and you’ll be dealing with bigger crowds should you decide to join them. And if you’re OK with that, enjoy. If, like me, you’re not so good with hordes of people, aim for low-season times: late August through September, and early February.

Staying on site The benefits of staying at WDW made this a no-brainer. Here’s why: Our luggage was moved for us from the airport check-in to our room; we were transported to and from the airport; we could use the WDW buses to get to any of the parks; we got to enjoy Extra Magic Hours — one of the parks opens an hour earlier, and another stays open three hours after closing time, just for those staying on site.

Value or deluxe Our value resort, Disney All-Star Music, was pretty no frills, but more than adequate — after all, we were barely there. But if you have younger kids and think you’ll be spending evenings or nap times in your room, you may want to upgrade (see Disney in diapers).

Dining plan This probably saved us about 35 percent of our food costs — and we were never hungry.

Birthdays My daughters really enjoyed celebrating their special days at Disney — including birthday cupcakes with candles at dinner and cards signed by the serving staff. As a special promotion in 2009, WDW is waiving the cost of park tickets to all visitors celebrating their birthdays.

What it cost us

Flight 3.5 tickets to Orlando were covered by our Air Miles points, so we had to pay $1,000 to cover the remaining 1.5 worth of tickets. We threw in cancellation insurance — you know how it is with kids.

At Walt Disney World Our package consisted of five nights at the All-Star Music value resort in a family suite, “park hopper” tickets (meaning we could go to more than one park per day) for all of us for four days, and the meal plan. Cost: $2,831.39.

Total: $3,831.39

Disney in diapers

Associate editor Dana Dougherty Reinke recently did Disney with her husband, Kerry, and two of their three kids — Charlotte, four, and Carson, two. Here are her tips for keeping things magical with the under-five crowd:

Avoid the 3 p.m. tantrum Arrive when the park opens (usually 9 a.m.) and leave by 2 p.m. Paring down the time sounds like a waste of money, but after five hours the kids will be fried, and so will your skin. We went back to our resort, The Polynesian, most afternoons, to play in the volcano-themed pool and participate in poolside activities, such as sand art and football. When energy permitted, we returned to Magic Kingdom in time for the 8 p.m. fireworks.

Don’t try to do it all You can’t cram it all in, no matter how long you stay — especially with little kids. Pick four must-do activities per day and then whatever else happens is gravy.

Choose accommodations wisely You’re going to be spending a lot of time in your room, so make sure it’s one you can live with. What with trips back for naps, tantrums and afternoon swims, spending the extra couple of hundred bucks for a bigger, better room is worth it.

Hire a fairy godmother Disney resorts offer in-room babysitting services and some have kids’ clubs for older children. I was skeptical, but my little ones loved their babysitter; she even brought toys! My husband and I went out for dinner at the Yacht Club resort while Joycie B. and the crew played the night away.

Enjoy the ride Don’t underestimate the allure of the free Disney transportation system. After a long day of walking, my little ones loved riding the buses and boats — and they still talk about sitting up front with the monorail driver.

Bring a stroller Torn about whether to bring the stroller? There’s a lot of walking at Disney World — too much for the under-five set — and at $15 US a day, stroller rentals quickly add up.

Play like a kid Who says rides are just for kids? Leave your hubby in charge and scoot up the single-rider lane. You’ll be on the Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster before you can say, “Aerosmith rocks!”

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