So! We spent a week at Disney World. Helene the 6-year old mostly loved it and had a great time. My husband went with the flow, and I think he had a reasonably good time. My in-laws said they had a good time time. Ajax, well, he's two. I really didn't enjoy it, though some things were good. I've made an effort to organize this post so that it contains less disgruntled rambling from me and more useful info for those who might want to go to Disney World but are not at all sure if they will actually like it.
I do not profess to be a Disney expert in any way, because as you can see, I probably did it all wrong. There are oodles of fabulous Disney expert people and information all over the internet. I do not/would not malign anyone for their love of Disney. I'm so happy that you love it! Go on with your bad self and love it! But do recognize that Disney is not for everyone.
The Salient Points
Where we stayed: the Wilderness Lodge resort, in the Magic Kingdom area, in a two-bedroom villa.
What tickets we had: 5 day park tickets, with the Park Hopper Option, so we could visit more than one park in a day if we wanted to.
Parks we visited: Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom (some contingent of us visited each of these parks twice). We skipped Epcot, as I wasn't sure it would suit either kid at all, and I was done planning or deciding anything after the first two days of the trip.
What I Liked
-Our resort, Wilderness Lodge. I cannot say enough good things about it. It is gorgeous and peaceful. It is on one of the lakes on the (huuuuge) Disney property. The staff at Wilderness Lodge were all outstanding and helpful. For the kids (and adults) it has a great pool, with a separate baby-toddler appropriate area, water slides, kid activities & games led by staff in the afternoons. Towel service at all the pools, so you never have to worry about towels. Our kids also enjoyed the sandy "beach" area by the lake (though you cannot swim in the lake), the arcade, the campfire & movies on the beach at night (well, the 6-year old - it was too late for the toddler). We liked using the boat transportation to Magic Kingdom, the Contemporary Resort, and Fort Wilderness. A boat ride to somewhere was a good toddler distraction. Both kids liked wandering the property looking for lizards, deer, ducks, & cranes. There are paths all over, including a 2-mile long running path that goes to Fort Wilderness, the campground at Disney World.
-Wilderness Lodge also has three restaurants on the property - A "Signature" (read: high-end) restaurant called Artist Point; a more mid-priced table service restaurant, Whispering Pines; and a counter-service restaurant, Roaring Fork. There is also a bar/snack bar by the pool, a bar/lounge near Artist Point, food available in the resort store, and room service. We took advantage of almost all of these dining options, and all were very good. The food at both Artist Point and Whispering Pines was really, really good. The quick-service place far exceeded my expectations, and was perfect for taking the kids to. Having a lot of food options at the resort was definitely one of the best/easiest parts of our stay.
-In general, we found the food to be pretty good at Disney, even at the quick-service/counter service places. We found that with a party of six, the quick service options worked best for us at the parks and at the resort. Sit-down, table service reservations were often a bit much to coordinate for all of us, especially with an impatient toddler. Also, except for Magic Kingdom, which is alcohol-free, Disney makes it quite easy for you to have a drink while with your kids. Kids are allowed to sit at/in the bars, and they can often get a fancy lemonade, and quick-service places often have beer & wine.
-Magical Express bus & luggage service between airport and Disney resorts. This was pretty great. You reserve it ahead of time. You tag your luggage with a yellow tag that they send to you in advance, before you check the luggage at your home airport. Disney will claim your luggage for you and deliver it to your hotel room. You just get off the plane and get on the bus to the resort. They do the same thing in reverse when you leave; you check your bags at the resort, and Disney transports them to the airport & checks them for you. The only slight drawback is that your bags don't arrive with you at the resort (they can arrive up to 3 hours after you), so if you know your kid will be dying to go swimming when you get there, pack bathing suits in carry on. We did this, and Helene and I went swimming immediately upon arrival at Wilderness Lodge.
-The villas at Wilderness Lodge. With six people of varying ages and bedtimes/wake-up times, we chose to stay in a two-bedroom villa. It had two bedrooms (each with own bath), a full kitchen, small living room, balcony, washer & dryer, and tons of closet space. It was perfect for us. I could get up with Ajax at 6, go into the living room, and not wake up anyone else. Ajax (and I) could nap in peace in the afternoons. We could all have breakfast in the room, which made it easier to get everyone ready & out in the mornings.
Sitting on the balcony was lovely, except that Ajax was quickly barred from the balcony when he did this in about 3 seconds. We were five floors up.
-Garden Grocer grocery delivery. I ordered diapers, wipes, coffee, basic breakfast stuff, snacks, ziploc bags, and bottled water from Garden Grocer ahead of time; they deliver it to the hotel, let you know when it's there, and bell service brings it to your room. I spent $150 on groceries for the week - that's what we probably would have spent on breakfast for six people in a couple of days at a restaurant.
-Animal Kingdom. This was my favorite (and Ajax's) of the three parks we went to. It's huge, so the crowds are more dispersed. The decor and theming are pretty amazing. They accurately mimic the feel and look of places in Africa and Asia without being cheesy or ethnically insulting. There was more shade available than in the other parks. It was also the only park that had a place where I felt Ajax could safely walk/run around without being trampled or getting lost. That place was Rafiki's Animal Watch/Conservation Station/Affection Station. You take a train which gives you backstage views of the animal care areas, and go to a separate site where you can see some small reptiles, amphibians, and monkeys up close, and a petting area where the kids can pet and brush sheep and goats. We had such a good time at AK that Ajax and I went there two days in a row. The truck safari to see big African game like elephants, giraffe, lions, and zebras is also really good.
I mean, seriously. It's beautiful.
-Hollywood Studios. This park is not usually crowded, and it's small, so it's a mellower experience than Magic Kingdom. My kids love Pixar characters, so this is the place to see them. Ajax enjoyed getting his photo with Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Mater, & Lightning McQueen. Helene liked the shows that she saw (too much, too long, too dark, & too scary for Ajax - we didn't even take him in, thank goodness). The Toy Story ride was really fun, and Helene says she liked the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, which I totally cannot believe she was brave enough to go on. Had I been sans kids, I would have gone to the Indiana Jones & Star Wars things.
-The characters. Absolutely every cast member that we encountered who was in costume as a Disney character was outstanding. Helene turned out to be very shy around the characters (this, from a city kid who will ask anyone to play with her at a playground), and they were SO GREAT about it. The first one we met was Cinderella, and we got up to her, Helene said she didn't want to do it, and Cinderella knelt down, came over to Helene, and drew her in. We saw that happen several times. Special kudos go to Princess Jasmine, who quickly ran to block Ajax from dashing down the spiral stairs during our character breakfast at Cinderella's Table.
-Magic Bands. Most awesome thing ever. Room key, park pass, credit card, Fast Pass, all in the bracelet. Waterproof, durable, removable, reasonably comfortable. You don't need keys or wallet or anything. It's brilliant. I would like the world to work like this.
What I Didn't Like
-The lines. And the waiting. Oh my god, the lines. There is a line for everything. To get on the boat/bus to go anywhere. For almost any ride/show/character/attraction, except sometimes first thing in the morning. Even when you have a reservation at a specific time at a restaurant (especially character dining), THERE IS STILL A LINE TO GET IN.
-The crowds. When I planned this trip, and looked at the crowd calendars, I thought, oh, hey a 6/10 at Magic Kingdom, that looks pretty good. Let me tell you that a 6 out of 10 crowd at Magic Kingdom is TOO MUCH. Crowds are significantly less for the first hour or two a park is open, and after that it gets worse by the minute. I can't speak for the evenings, because we never made it back to any park in the evening (more on that later). If I could ever be convinced to go back to Disney, it would have to be at a very, very low crowd time (like a 2/10). Which never coincide with kid school breaks, so future Disney visits seem unlikely for us, as we are not willing to take our kids out of school for a Disney vacation. That's just us - you may feel differently.
-The fact that you cannot just go to a park and expect to kind of wander around and find something fun to do. You really have to have a plan of some kind, because there is A LOT to possibly see, but you are impeded by lines, crowds, lack of Fast Passes, all the walking & distance between things, etc. You really do have to have some kind of a plan when you walk into a park, or your day is likely to end up being terrible. This may not be true when the crowds are very, very low. But they would have to be VERY, VERY low (like a 2 out of 10) for you to be able to just amble around and go into rides or shows or see characters.
-The general hassle to get anywhere. Admittedly, my hassle threshold is low. But I felt like a lot of things were just too hard. The Disney World property is so huge, that unless you are staying next to one of the parks and can easily walk or monorail (possible from some resorts) you are often facing at least 20 minutes in transit to a park on a bus or a boat, which doesn't include waiting for the boat/bus or the long walk that it takes to get into the park and to any attraction that you actually want to do. I underestimated how hard it was to get to/from parks, and how long it would take. I thought we'd want to go back to parks in the evenings, maybe for dinner or something. This just wasn't true. We were all DONE by lunchtime or shortly after, we'd go back to the resort, and not leave again. It was just too much. If you have older kids or adults in your group, this may be more manageable. It wasn't for us.
-Disney World with a toddler. It was not my best idea to take an active toddler to Disney World. I do not recommend it. I just didn't realize how bad of an idea it was. Though, if you have a mellower two-year old than I have, and you are going to Disney at a very un-crowded time, your mileage may vary. I overestimated the amount of things Ajax would be able to do/enjoy at each park, and underestimated the hassle of having him there. Folding up the stroller, while also hanging on to him for each and every bus & boat ride was a pain; trying to have a sit-down meal with him was usually not fun; trying to keep him in the stroller most of the time was not fun. I have a busy kid who likes to run & be active; who was too little/scared for pretty much all of the rides & shows; who could not wait in a line; who sometimes has patience for sitting at a restaurant and sometimes does not, who needs an afternoon nap. All of these things made it really hard to take him to a park. It was too crazy and crowded to let him out of the stroller most of the time; he hated the very few rides we tried, including the carousel; he was pretty quickly stressed out and maxed out by the stimulus at each park; it was stressful getting him back to the resort in time for a decent nap and trying to manage a maxed out toddler on the buses. The exceptions were Animal Kingdom and being at the resort. (But then I just thought, well, we could have stayed home and gone to the zoo. For free.)
-Magic Kingdom. There, I said it. I hated Magic Kingdom. We went there the first day, and it started off pretty well, but deteriorated rapidly. My dislike of Magic Kingdom was directly tied to the crowds and how hard it was to do anything. For the first couple of hours we were there the first day, we were able to just get on a bunch of rides without lines. BUT. The rides (with a few exceptions) are all VERY SHORT in duration. Too short. Like, the ride stops, and Helene and I would look at each other and say, what? It's not over already, is it? And then if you'd Fast Passed the ride, or had a short wait, and you liked it, you couldn't do it again, because now the line is 20 minutes long instead of five. I personally think it's dumb to wait 30 minutes (or more!) for a 2-minute ride or 30 seconds with a character, but this is just me. And my kid, who whined (rightfully) about the lines more than any other thing. Yes, there are parades. Yes, there are characters. Yes, there are fireworks. Yes, there are Fast Passes (more on that later. But for me, it was just too hard to do any of these things. It's too complicated, too crowded, too many people, too many lines. The first day at Magic Kingdom stressed me out like crazy, made me cry, we bailed our early (skipping a Fast Pass to see Anna and Elsa) and I refused to go back. Seth & Helene went back another day, and had a decent time, by FP-ing a few things in the morning, and leaving shortly after lunch. But I would not go back to MK unless it was at a super-low crowd time of year. I will also say we weren't alone in our experience at MK; two other families that I know from DC were at Disney last week (one family of seasoned Disney veterans with older kids), and all of us had a negative experience last week at MK. It's a geographically smaller park than some others, and certainly the most popular, so it gets simply overrun.
Helene's face pretty much sums up the end of our day at MK
-Disney's restaurant reservation cancellation policy. If you don't cancel within a certain mysterious, and not-printed timeframe (which may be different for each restaurant), you will get charged $10 per person for missing the reservation. This isn't for character dining or anything like that - just a regular old reservation at a regular old Disney restaurant. So, when we were all toast after our first somewhat awful day at Magic Kingdom, and I realized there was no way in hell we'd be making it to dinner at a Magic Kingdom restaurant, I called to cancel. I knew there was a possible fee, and had looked for the cancellation timeframes, but Disney is very vague about these on its website and in the reservation confirmation e-mail that they send. I was informed that I'd missed the (not printed anywhere) deadline, and would be charged $60. They asked why I wanted to cancel, and I kind of wised up, and said members of our party were not feeling well, that we had a sick toddler (Ajax had a cold) and elderly people (sorry, MIL) with bad backs (this is true) and could not make it to dinner, so was there any flexibility with the fee? I got the fee waived. But the whole thing annoyed me. Restaurants in the real world don't act like this - you just...cancel. Disney has a CAPTIVE AUDIENCE and makes money hand over fist; they will fill those tables. It's ridiculous that their regular old restaurants should penalize diners this way. So, in short, if you need to cancel a Disney dining reservation, plead norovirus and ask for the fee to be waived.
-It's too darn hard to see Mickey Mouse. You have to Fast Pass, or do character dining, or something. One is hard to get at a decent time, the other can be expensive. The days of being able to just walk up to characters as they roam the park are gone (well, maybe they never existed at Disney World. I recall getting to do this at Disneyland as a kid). I personally think there should be roving Mickey Mouses at all the resorts, because shoot, he's THE symbol of Disney, and kids love seeing him. Helene said to me "It's funny we haven't seen Mickey Mouse, isn't it?" Sigh. It just shouldn't be so hard to see Mickey Mouse.
-Other than at our resort and from the characters, I didn't feel the legendary excellent customer service that Disney is supposed to have. At Magic Kingdom in particular, I felt like there was NO ONE around to ask for directions or anything. It just seemed hard to find a cast member or anyone to help. I felt like some of the park staff and wait staff at restaurants were jaded or impatient or speaking too quickly, and they seemed annoyed when you didn't understand what they'd said or asked another question. I also had a boat captain just stand and watch me struggle to get Ajax and a folding stroller on and off of a rocking boat by myself; I mean, it was kind of unsafe, and he actually looked the other way, deliberately not looking at me, as I literally threw my folded stroller out of the boat and onto the dock, and then set Ajax on the dock, and then walked up. I didn't ask for help, but I also didn't think I should have had to ask. The overall service just didn't live up to what I had heard.
-The cost. Disney is expensive, hands down. There are ways to save money, I know, and there are whole blogs and sites devoted to it. Again, that's a lot of work & planning. For me, the money and time spent was not worth the enjoyment we collectively got out of it. I'd rather have spent money on a vacation where we could all spend more time together, and where *I* actually got to relax, and do something *I* wanted to do. (I didn't know that I wouldn't actually like doing most of the things at Disney. Or how much effort it takes to do anything. Lesson learned.)
Things I Both Liked And Disliked
-The Fast Pass+ system. This can be great, but can also be terrible. The good part is each person gets 3 Fast Passes per day that you can use to bypass the line for a ride or character, get into a show, or get a spot at a parade. It is great when you have one, and you just walk up and get on a ride or go into a show. The bad part is that some of the FP slots (for very popular things such as seeing Anna & Elsa) book up almost as soon as they're opened up two months in advance. I booked a FP for Anna and Elsa at Magic Kingdom the first day I could (2 months in advance), and I could only get a slot at about 5:00 in the afternoon. I woefully underestimated how exhausting and frustrating MK would be, and so we bailed on our FP to see them, because it was just too late in the day, and we were all done and ready for the pool.
Another bad part is you only get three per day, and the Disney app is a little frustrating to use in how it picks the times for you, and picks the length of the FP window. Yes, you can change the times of your FPs. Sort of, only if there's another time available. I wish the Disney app for it were a little less cumbersome to use, and would more clearly show you all of your possible FP choices at a specific time. Also, if you FP'ed something great, well, sorry, you can't do it again because the line is an hour long or there are no more FPs for that at a decent time.
Here is how FP did NOT work well for us at Magic Kingdom: we had 3 FPs (7 Dwarves Mine Train, Peter Pan ride, and Anna & Elsa - all in Fantasyland). Each FP gives you a window to use it in; you can't use it before that window starts. We did the 7 Dwarves Train (fun, cool, but too short - the whole thing takes less than 5 minutes), but then we had nearly an hour until the NEXT FP, and nearly two hours until the third one. Our problem was that by this time, MK was too crowded and the lines were too long for us to find something reasonable or fun to do to fill the time until our next Fast Pass. I'd look on the Lines app, find something H would like, and it was either a long line or a long walk to some other part of the park. Helene was tired, had gotten a blister on her foot, and had zero patience at this point for lines, short rides, or walking. This is why FPs worked better in the morning - the parks were less crowded, so you could fit in some other thing between FP times without a long line and when no one was tired or impatient.
We had the best success with FP when we used it the morning of or the day before to book FPs at the park we were going to for the morning for 3 things that looked fun and we weren't choosy. For our group, it was not do-able or enjoyable to spend a full day at a park, so afternoon FPs were not worth it. We got Ajax back to the resort by about 1 each day for a nap, but even everyone else maxed out at a park by about 2 pm.
-Character dining. We did two character meals. First, we did brunch at Cinderella's Table in Magic Kingdom on the first day. Second, we did a Disney Jr. character lunch at Hollywood & Vine in Hollywood Studios. Again, all of the characters were fantastic at their interactions with my suddenly-shy kid. These tend to be pricey, but are a lot better IMHO than standing in a hot, sweaty line outside to see a character.
Cinderella's Table: It's in the castle at MK, and the interior is beautiful, and the food is very good. But despite a reservation, we still had to wait at least 15 minutes in line just to get to our table. It kind of interrupted our fun morning at MK, caused a lot of whining, and in retrospect, I would not have booked this on the first day of the trip, and would not have booked it so that it interrupted morning time when crowds are lower. I also looked at all the little girls dolled up in custom made princess outfits with makeup and beglittered beauty shop updos and thought, I am out of my league here. Helene had brought her Anna and Elsa dresses but decided she did not want to wear them that day.
One of the funniest things that happened during the trip was here - Snow White was the first princess to approach, and while Helene kind of cowered in her chair, Ajax just took to Snow White. He stood up in his chair, and introduced the whole family to Snow White: "And that's my Grandpa! (pointing at my father in law) And this my Mama! (touching me on the shoulder)." And so on. Snow White rolled with it, and was just fantastic. The kids got wands or swords as favors and a "wishing star." When Helene wanted a sword instead of a wand, they gave her both. I do think she enjoyed the experience, though she was super shy with the princesses.
For me, the meal went downhill after that, for a couple of reasons. First, huge mistake to bring the toddler. Ajax was DONE long before the meal was over, so I ended up scarfing my meal, and chasing him up & down the spiral staircase the rest of the time, and trying to prevent him from running outside of the castle and into the crowds. Second, our waiter was shockingly, appallingly rude to me. I thought I was perhaps being too sensitive, but confirmed later with Seth and my in-laws that he was extremely rude. When he didn't bring me or my mother in law coffee, forgot straw cups for the kids until almost the end of the meal, and didn't clearly explain the kids' meal options (which are mysteriously not printed on the menu), he acted as if all of these things were my fault, saying things in a condescending manner like "Well, sir (gesturing to my FIL) heard me ask if you wanted coffee. You just didn't want to talk to me." Despite the fact that we were in the last seating of the morning, he made the service feel extremely rushed, practically throwing plates on the table, giving me juice I didn't want, not giving me coffee, addressing me rudely when I was trying to deal with an escaping Ajax. I've been a server; I know what's good, bad, what's a waiter's fault and what isn't. I have never had a waiter be so rude to me.
This was the look we got from Helene with most character encounters.
So, bottom line: Cinderella's Table may be worth it if your kid realllly likes the princesses and isn't shy around them, and is happy to sit through a meal (don't bring fidgety toddlers who like to run). Downsides: it's expensive, has to be booked months in advance to get a slot, paid in full in advance (must cancel 5 days before to get $$ back), may feel rushed, and you might get our obnoxious waiter. (Note: I should have complained about the waiter. I found out where to complain to (Guest Services), since this isn't like a regular restaurant, and you can't just ask to speak to the manager. But I just never did it. I felt too jaded and exhausted and disillusioned by the whole week.)
Hollywood & Vine: We had a pretty good time here. Admittedly, one of the reasons was that we did not take Ajax. I went with Helene and her grandparents, while Seth took Ajax back to Wilderness Lodge for a nap. It's a buffet, including a separate dessert buffet, the food is reasonably good, and you can see four Disney Jr. characters. They come to your table and interact with each kid. We saw Sofia, Handy Manny, Jake, and Doc McStuffins. By this point, Helene was pretty into her autograph book, and liked getting character autographs, so that helped with her shyness (I had forgotten it the previous day for Cinderella - total mom fail). They have a low buffet with more kid-friendly foods - mac & cheese, etc. - and that was fun, because the kids can serve themselves. Helene really liked this, and I think she would have stayed to see all the characters again. I have no complaints about this experience, other than it's a bit expensive. But you are paying to have characters come to your table in air-conditioned comfort with no lines.
Why Disney Was Not Fun For Me (your mileage may vary)
-Disney with my toddler was stressful and not that much fun. I would never, ever bring a toddler again to Disney. Your toddler may vary. I didn't find that there were many toddler-appropriate activities in the parks. Your tolerance for schlepping toddler necessities, strollers, and overstimulated toddlers in 92 degree heat may also vary.
-If you are fine spending a lot of time at your (very expensive) resort with your toddler and not at the parks, then you might not mind. Staying at the resort was fine, but could also get a little old/boring, in my opinion. For my money, I'd much rather have been at an actual beach resort in an actual place (e.g. Turks & Caicos, as opposed to a Disney experience that is trying to be like something else) or at my in-laws on Martha's Vineyard. For all the money that you pay for park tickets, spending a lot of time at the resort also feels a bit like a waste. In other words, the cost wasn't worth the experience for me.
-I have a low tolerance for hassle. Disney involves a good amount of hassle, as I've detailed above.
-I spent A LOT of time in advance making plans -Fast Passes, character dining, restaurant reservations. Which I then canceled most of because they were making the experience too stressful and too scheduled and it was too hard to get to something at the time booked for it and everyone was too tired or didn't want to go.... It was very hard for me to find the right balance of schedule vs. spontaneous. Sometimes the crowds/lines made spontaneous impossible. It was frustrating to have spent so much time on something and then not be enjoying it at all. It was also hard to keep up with what six people wanted.
-Because it worked better for us to split up with the kids, I missed most of the fun with my daughter, who had the best time of everyone. I was very burned out by the first day at Magic Kingdom. It made me not want to go to the other parks. While my in-laws were with us ostensibly to help, I also could not reliably leave Ajax with them, other than in the villa while we went to dinner a couple of times (which was great). My MIL can't keep up with Ajax if he runs, and my FIL is often working or on an international call, or otherwise distracted . I could have traded kids with Seth, but I was also finding it a little frustrating to be with Helene and my in-laws; there were kind of too many parents at once, with sometimes conflicting directives to my kid (e.g. my MIL would just hand Helene an iPhone whenever she said she was bored. I don't do that, and it caused friction among everyone.). My in laws would not go on any of the rides, so then I had to try to find them afterwards and figure out where we were going next. Their presence didn't often end up being helpful to me. Under normal, more controlled circumstances, at home or at their house, I get along with them well and find them very helpful. At Disney, it just wasn't working. I felt like I had to manage everything and they were spectators to my kid's fun.
-Because I'm the default parent in our house, the packing, unpacking, feeding, dressing, sunscreening, etc. falls to me unless I specifically delegate it. And even then, it doesn't get done, and things are forgotten. Helene got sunburned because I wasn't there one afternoon, and no other adult thought to re-apply sunscreen.
-Overall, I felt like I put A LOT of effort into something from which I got little reward. For me, Disney was Just Too Much Work. I got home exhausted and dissatisfied, which is not how I want to feel after a vacation. Even if Helene had a good time? I missed most of it. Some of that was our particular family composition/dynamic; but some of it was because I think Disney can just be stressful and exhausting.
Advice From My Experience/Other Random Bits
-It doesn't really matter where in Disney you stay. I (mistakenly) thought we'd want to be at MK a lot, and that it would be very quick to get there. Eh, not so much. It's kind of a hassle to get anywhere. My advice: pick a resort with a lot of on-site dining options, and a really great pool & kids' activities. You may be spending more time there than you think, and you may not want to leave.
-Related to the above, good friends of ours with kids who are 4 & 6 (also there last week) stayed at the Beach Club (Or maybe it was the Boardwalk? Shoot. I forget.), which is walking distance to Epcot. They also found that half a day at a park was more than enough, and found MK too crowded and stressful. They spent afternoons at the pool, and then walked to Epcot for dinner. Epcot is known for all kinds of great food, and has very good quick-service restaurants, so staying by Epcot opens up a ton of easy dining options. We're all city dwellers in a walkable neighborhood, so a short walk back & forth to dinner is ideal for us, and like what we do at home.
-Use a Disney travel agent. They know stuff. For example, if you book something, and later on, there is a better price deal at your resort or in a similar room at a different resort, they will let you know & give you the option to change it. I used my friend Lisa, who lives in my 'hood, but works for Build A Better Mouse Trip. She booked our resort, booked Magical Express, advised me about all kinds of things, made sure we had our Magic Bands, and would answer absolutely any question I had quickly and accurately.
-Use the Touring Plans app. Booking through a Disney travel agent, I also got a free membership to TouringPlans.com. This is helpful because you get free access to their lines app, which tells you how long the wait time is for any attraction at any park. It also gives you pre-made suggested touring plans that you can use as a jumping off point or customize. I found the app easier than the website. I think it's impossible to do all the things they suggest in each plan, but they do give you a good idea of what's better do to earlier in the day, and are a good way to figure out where to start in each park. As I mentioned above, you really need some kind of plan of attack before you get to a park, or you may end up very frustrated.
-Go at the least crowded time you possibly can. Like I said, a 6/10 for Magic Kingdom was TOO MUCH. You have no idea what crowded really is until you see an afternoon at MK. It's really your worst nightmare of tired, crying children, traffic jams of strollers, yelling parents, hot, sweaty strangers, not enough shade, long lines. And this is coming from a city dweller who is used to crowds.
-Ease into Disney. Seriously. It is EXHAUSTING. Plan for just a morning at a park the first day. Or just a dinner/evening at a park. Enjoy & explore your resort. Don't do Magic Kingdom the first day. Don't make any reservations for the first day, except maybe some Fast Passes at the last minute.
-Should you require a band aid or a Tylenol, and have no idea where to go, just to into the nearest shop of any kind. Most of them have a stash of these things behind the counter which they will sell to you. We were in a shop that sold ridiculously expensive and fancy Beauty and the Beast related items (china plates, etc.) and they sold little packets containing several band aids and bacitracin. But you do have to ask at the sales counter. There are also first aid stations in the parks that would also have these items.
-Do not book any pre-paid reservations (e.g. character dining or Tomorrowland Terrace dessert buffet & fireworks viewing) unless you are ABSOLUTELY SURE you want to plan your whole day around those things. I had booked Tomorrowland Terrace for the fireworks months in advance, thinking, oh, we'll just zip over to Magic Kingdom in the evening! It will be fun! But it turns out that Seth & Helene had spent the morning & early afternoon at MK (I was done dictating plans to anyone). Helene was exhausted and didn't want to go back. The fireworks don't start until 10pm, which is awfully late for kids, especially tired ones. My in-laws are on a diet, and were not interested in a dessert-only buffet (though, you can leave the Terrace & go in and out). Then it started to rain and lightning. Then the boat service to MK was stopped. As we were unhappily waiting in line for a bus, we decided to scrap the whole thing, and lose the $125 we'd paid in advance (wrote it off as "sunk cost"), and go to one of the resort restaurants. We went to the arcade after dinner, as it was pouring rain. Everyone was happier.
-Make few or fewer plans. This is what worked best for us. After the awful first day, I canceled almost every restaurant reservation. I scrapped my plan for which parks we were doing on which days. Things were much better when we decided in the morning which park to go to, found 3 Fast Passes for the morning that sounded fun, and had no other real plans. It also worked better to split up most of the time, since our kids are different ages. Going day by day worked best for us.
-You do not need a ton of dining reservations. We found that we could walk into every restaurant at our resort, and get a table pretty quickly. We also could have gone over to Fort Wilderness and eaten there without reservations. I mentioned the Epcot option above. The quick service dining everywhere is pretty good. As I mentioned earlier, sit-down, table-service dinners were mostly impossible with all six of us, and we did not need or use a lot of reservations. It can also break up your day if your kid is having fun and you have a lunch reservation and your kid doesn't want to go. You may end up being exhausted and not want to go back to another park for that dinner reservation. You can book or call last-minute and lots of places will have space at dinner. See also the above onerous Disney reservation cancellation policy.
-Don't promise anything to your kids. Like meeting Elsa & Anna, or seeing Mickey Mouse. Unless you are prepared to really plan around that or absolutely make it happen. Things can just be crowded or complicated or not possible to do at Disney. Better to go with the flow than be one of those parents yelling at your tired kid that you need to go do XYZ Fun Thing right now, because I did this for you. (Yes, we saw that.)
-If your kid really, really, really loves a certain character and really, really wants to see them, and will die if they don't, do a character meal to see that character, or Fast Pass for that character, and plan EVERYTHING that day around it. You want your kid to be well-rested and happy for the experience.
-Consider renting a villa using Disney Vacation Club (DVC) points. Apparently, you can do this and save a ton of money, as in get a villa for less than a regular room. Apparently, it is not without some paperwork. I have not done this firsthand, but I would do it if I can ever be persuaded to go back to Disney World ever again. The villa was just so great, and made our experience a lot better/easier than it would have otherwise been.
Wow, Disney was not my thing. I wanted to love it, because so many of my friends do. But I didn't. It was too time-consuming to plan/coordinate and too exhausting. I would only go back if all of these things lined up: Ajax is at least six; we can go at a super-low crowd time without kids missing school; we get a great deal on a resort villa, and airfare, and park tickets, and I recover from the disillusionment I have from this visit. Thus, it's unlikely that we will go again. I think there are more things we could do elsewhere that all of us would collectively enjoy more and that would be less exhausting.
If this post resonated with you/interested you, and you want more info or have questions, leave a comment. I will email you back directly.