In late February 2014, my family went on a Disney vacation that included four nights on the Disney Dream cruise ship and then three nights at Disney World in Florida. We stayed at Port Orleans (on property) and visited Animal Kingdom, Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. Our vacation also included two extra nights because our flight home got canceled because of bad weather. We ended up moving off property and staying at a Hyatt Place our last two nights. I’ll write about that experience later.
To give you a little perspective, this trip included my wife, our three kids and both of my parents. Everything I experienced may or may not apply to your family (especially if you have older kids). I’m hoping that you’ll be able to pick up a few useful nuggets of information for future trips. Feel free to share your experiences below in the comments.
Below is my list of things I learned during our week-long vacation. I’ve indicated whether each applies to Disney World (DW), the cruise or both.
1) Take your own bottled water/containers to fill with water/juices/soft drinks and your own snacks (both).
On the cruise, our room was four decks below the area where we could get drinks or food. It was a pain to go up four decks just to get something to drink. It would have been better to have stuff in our room’s mini-fridge. We saw people bringing cases of bottled water onto the ship with them. On the ship (or in the park), bottled water cost around $2.50.
Surprisingly, Disney lets you bring your own food/drink into the parks. There were several times that our kids wanted something to eat while we were standing in line for a ride and we were able to pull out a bag of popcorn or other snack. Next time, we’ll be better prepared with drinks and snacks because they can get really expensive.
2) The Disney mobile apps are awesome and very handy (both).
My wife and I both downloaded them on our iPhones. I’m not exactly sure what apps they offer for Android phones but I’m assuming they’re similar. There are two different apps that you really need to download:
Disney Cruise Line Navigator (Cruise) – This app tells you what activities are going on, when they’re happening and where you can find them. We used it to see when movies were playing and also to know when the characters were going to make appearances. They also had plans of the ship so you could see what was on each deck. On the boat, you have to pay for Wi-Fi access (this sucks) but they do let you access the app for free. Make sure you download the app before you get on the ship. Also, I had problems getting the app to work initially after following Disney’s instructions. All I had to do was the close the app and then re-open it and it worked fine.
My Disney Experience (DW) – We used the heck out of this app while we were at Disney World. Our two primary uses were to manage our Fast Passes (more below about this) and to check on wait times for the rides. You can do other stuff with your reservations and events going on within the parks. In all honesty, my wife did most of interacting with this app but it made our lives much easier while we were in the parks.
Tip: Make sure that you charge your phone each day because you’ll drain the battery while playing with the apps. I’d suggest turning off some of your phone’s services (ex. location services or bluetooth) because I’ve heard that they drain your battery.
3) You get free Wi-Fi in the parks but not on the cruise ship (both).
Other than using the mobile app, I didn’t have any Internet access during our 4+ days on our cruise. You have to pay for access and it’s not a flat rate either. It’s similar to how cell phone data plans work. You can pay for a specific amount of data transfer (ex. 1 GB) or you can pay something like 9 cents per megabyte downloaded. It wasn’t worth it to me.
Once we got to our Disney hotel at Port Orleans, I logged into their Wi-Fi network and had Internet access at the hotel and in all the parks. I felt connected to the world again.
4) We will never combine a cruise and visit to Disney World again during the same vacation.
Don’t get me wrong. We had a blast doing both. It’s just that in retrospect, we realized that it was too much. We were worn out before we even got to the parks from all of the walking we did on the cruise ship and our excursions.
5) Use Disney’s FastPass service AND use it wisely (DW).
FastPasses allow you to skip the lines and get right on a ride. When you choose which ride you want to use a FastPass for, it gives you an hour window to use the pass. You get three FastPasses per person per day. Use them wisely. I think we had to pick which three rides we wanted to use the fast passes before we ever got to the parks but we were able to switch them around once we got there. If you wait until too late in the day, all of the fast passes will be used up for the most popular rides. We ended up using most of our fast passes when lines for our favorite rides were longer. You can track the wait times on the mobile app and then make changes on the fly.
6) Wait as long as possible to tell your kids about the Disney vacation (both).
We had the trip booked almost four months in advance but waited until less than a month before our trip to tell the kids about it. Sure it was hard (we almost slipped multiple times) BUT we knew that they would start asking us every single day about when we were going. My wife and kids made a calendar that counted down how many days we had until we left for vacation. Even then, my younger kids asked about it constantly. “Is it time to go to Disney yet?”
7) Get travel insurance (both).
What happens if someone gets sick or something happens and you can’t make the trip? Disney vacations are super-expensive and it would be painful to lose that money. We had travel insurance for our cruise but didn’t get it for our airfare. We ended up getting stuck in Orlando because our flight home got canceled because of the weather. Our friends Shannon and Mike also got stuck at the same time as us. Their insurance covered most of their expenses (up to something like $150/day per person) over the three additional days we spent in Orlando.
8) Don’t go on a Disney cruise if you don’t like kids (cruise).
I know this sounds stupid but I saw several different instances where adults (without kids) freaked out about something that a kid did (ex. bump into them). If you go on a Disney cruise, you should know what you’re getting yourself into. They are everywhere and it can be a little overwhelming at times because spaces are tighter.
9) The kid pools are ridiculously small (cruise).
I was really surprised at this. The pools were small and filled to the brim with kids. It made me extremely nervous because it was hard to track three different kids at times.
10) Stay at a Disney resort if at all possible.
They provide bus service to and from the parks all day. This means that you get in and out of the parks quicker and don’t have to pay for parking (much less find a parking space). It’s so much more convenient.
11) Ask Disney’s photographers to take pictures of you with your own camera (both).
I was extremely surprised to find out that Disney’s photographers will take pictures of you with the characters even if you’re not buying the pictures. We got tons of great pictures this way and didn’t pay for a single photo. Plus, we have the digital copies of every picture we took.
12) Fly if you can (both).
It’s definitely more expensive to fly but it can save you some extra days of vacation. In our case, the flight was two hours compared to a 13-hour drive. I hate driving long distances with the kids because they can only go so long before they start getting on our nerves.
We signed up for a Southwest credit card several months before our trip and were able to earn enough points to pay for three of our five tickets. It was so much less stressful for us when we flew (even though it was more expensive). The time we saved was worth it though because we could spend more time at the parks.
13) Keep a daily journal of your adventures (both).
I took a noteb0ok with me so that I could keep track of what we did each day. Trust me, everything turns into a blur and it’s hard to remember what you did each day without looking at your photos.
14) Take your kids to the Oceaneer’s Club as often as possible (cruise).
Disney basically runs activities and labs for the kids all day long. We took our kids for at least 1.5 hours per day. They didn’t love it as much as we had hoped but they still had a good time. This allowed my wife and I to recharge a bit (and have dinner) without the kids. Don’t feel guilty about it. It’s important to find some time for yourself because it’s your vacation too.
15) It’s not fair to ask kids to sit through four-course meals (cruise).
On the ship, you have a scheduled formal dinner each day. Our kids had never set through a dinner like that before. They’re used to getting their food at the same time as us. For some reason, Disney only offers the kids a three-course meal and they end up finishing their meals before the adults. After our first dinner, we either dropped the kids off at the Oceaneer’s Club or we let them take their tablets with them to dinner.
16) You’re going to spend a bunch of money so go ahead and accept it (both).
Disney makes it too easy. On the cruise, you can use a card they give you (I carried mine around on a lanyard) to make purchases. At the parks, you have a bracelet that can be scanned. Everything hits a credit card that you set up. I’m still not exactly sure how much money we spent at Disney. I’m hoping I won’t have to sell a kidney.
17) The Magic Bands are really cool (DW).
You can use them to make purchases but they’re also you’re ticket into the parks and your FastPasses. You can pick which colors you want and Disney will even print your names on the inside of the bracelets. I ended up wearing four of them because my kids kept messing with theirs or wanting to take them off. It was easier anyway when we got to the rides and had to scan them to use our FastPasses.
I do wonder how much tracking Disney does of its guests wearing the bracelets. I’m assuming they were able to track all of our movements. I’m basing this on the fact that when we were on the cruise ship, our kids had bracelets on and workers in the Oceaneer’s Club could tell us exactly what room our kids were in. On the flip side, I suppose Disney would be able to track down a missing or lost kid assuming he/she was wearing the bracelet.
18) Room service is free (cruise).
I was really surprised that we were able to order room service and not have to pay a ton extra for it. We ordered some food one morning when we didn’t feel like getting up early. You do have to tip everyone though. That’s how they make their money.
19) Disney offers free movies and TV shows on-demand (cruise).
When we were just chilling in our room, the kids figured out that they could watch almost any Disney show or movie (Pixar included) on-demand. Sadly, I didn’t realize that there were new movies (for the adults) available to watch until the end of the trip.
20) You probably won’t have time for everything so plan out what you’d like to do (both).
The cruise is jam-packed with activities. We didn’t have time to explore the entire ship. One of our regrets was that we went on excursions on both days that they were offered. One of the excursions was Atlantis’ water park in the Bahamas. We thought it was okay but wished that we had stayed on the ship. We also didn’t have enough time to see everything at Disney World. Magic Kingdom could easily be split out over a couple of days.
21) You absolutely must take your daughter (and/or son) to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique (DW).
They offer princess and knight makeovers. The boutique is located in the Disney castle and it’s a priceless experience. You do have to schedule your appointment in advance because I think they’re always filled up. For the princess makeover, they can get makeup and special hair styles. Make sure that you take your own dress because they are ridiculously priced in the boutique. My daughter was fine with the dress we took for her. The knights get their hair slicked back and they get a really cool sword and shield. My daughter and son loved the experience and it was fun to watch them get “made up.”
22) Some things I would highly suggest taking with you (both):
- A power strip – This made it so much easier to charge all of our devices (phones, tablets, iPods, cameras) because there weren’t always a ton of outlets available.
- A small backpack to carry around – I was able to carry bottled water, snacks, the camera and even souvenirs that we bought. It was very convenient.
- Rain ponchos – Fortunately, it never rained on us but we had them with us because they are super-expensive at the park and I would imagine that they run out if the weather goes south. You can get them for around $1 at the dollar store.
- Plenty of changes of clothes – We over-prepared and it saved us when our trip was unexpectedly extended because our flight got canceled. We didn’t have to worry about finding a place to do our laundry.
- Autograph books, trading pins and other Disney items (shirts or princess dresses) – We bought the kids autograph books in advance and they each got a ton of autographs. I wished that we had bought the trading pins in advance (the kids can trade them with Disney employees). In my wife’s defense, she asked me if she should get them off eBay and I supposedly told her no. That was my fault. As mentioned everywhere in this post, Disney is super-expensive (at least three times more expensive). You can buy all of these things for cheap outside of the park.
- Bottled water and snacks – I think these are worth mentioning again.
- Band-aids – The kids were always complaining about some ailment and it’s amazing what a band-aid can do.
23) Next time, we’ll hit Disney World in September.
We thought going in February was the optimal time. It wasn’t horribly packed (like it would be in June) but there were still some pretty long lines. We talked to several park employees and they said the best time was September.
24) Go with the flow.
It is vacation and you don’t want to wear yourself out too much. My wife and I have different styles when it comes to vacation. She wants to be moving at full steam ahead from sun up to sundown. There were several days where my feet hurt so bad that I almost couldn’t walk. I certainly understand wanting to do as much as possible though. I just don’t want to get so run down that I need a second vacation to recover from the first vacation.
25) Disney vacations are not relaxing.
At least they’re not when you have small kids. They tend to all want to go in different directions. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We had a great time. I just suspect that as our kids get older and become more independent, we’ll be able to relax more. On the flip side, they might be less interested in going. I guess we have to make the memories now while we can.
All in all, it was a great trip. We had a wonderful time. I hope you found these lessons helpful. Feel free to share your tips in the comments below.