I’ve visited Disney World regularly as both a kid and adult, but most trips have followed a similar pattern. This has been especially true during the past 10 years. We typically spend a week in Orlando and 5-6 days in the parks during a slower time period in January or February. Having kids has made park hoppers and regular breaks essential to keep us going. Instead of spending a full day at one park, we’ve scheduled quicker visits or left fairly early in the evening. Times are changing, however. My daughter is now in grade school, so taking her out for a week isn’t a possibility. Instead, we’re braving the crowds over a long Martin Luther King Day holiday weekend. This move has led to quite a few changes to our normal routine.
For this trip, we’re only spending four nights at the resort and three days in the parks. That time still offers plenty of chances to catch all our choices. The trick is recognizing the limits and finding the most fun within the shorter period. Disney World can be a little overwhelming, so it’s possible that a long weekend is just the right length. There’s less chance of burnout, particularly when traveling with young kids. The parks can be too much if you’re not careful, and the sensory overload and crowds are a lot to take. Even so, we’re still making some adjustments to ensure we have a great vacation.
The biggest change is the choice to fly instead of taking our usual car trip from St. Louis. It made little sense to spend more than a day in the car on each end given our timeframe. When you’re traveling with young kids, flying can be no picnic. However, cutting our travel time down to just a few hours made it an easy decision. Even when you consider Disney’s Magical Express, security, and other factors, it completely makes sense. The obvious downside of flying is the higher cost, especially during a holiday weekend. There’s no way to get special fares when so many people are traveling. The reality of flying at a busier time is the bigger expense, but that’s the trade-off for the time savings.
Since we’re flying this time, it will be my first exposure to Disney’s Magical Express. We’ve always rented a car or driven our own in the past. I’ve heard such a wide range of information about how the service functions. I’m interested to have this experience and hope that we don’t fall on the longer end of the spectrum with our travel time. We’re arriving in the early evening, so it won’t be the busiest time for Magical Express. This will definitely be a bus-centric trip; we’re even going to brave the dreaded bus system (more on that in a moment). It will be nice to avoid some navigation headaches, though I expect there will be new hurdles to overcome while being in Disney’s hands.
The On-Site Resort (Jambo!)
Another shift is the move to stay at an on-site resort, which connects to the transportation choices. We’ve stayed at off-site condos in our recent trips, and the space is definitely a positive. This time, we splurged and booked a room at the Animal Kingdom Lodge for four nights. While the savannah room is the draw for that resort, it didn’t fit the budget. Disney wisely lessened the discounts for those rooms with the pin code they sent. I may not have a giraffe outside my window but can’t wait to see the resort. Most of our time will be in the parks, so the savannah room feels less essential. We did make a reservation for a breakfast at Boma on our departure day, and I’ll definitely spend time exploring the public areas.
I’ve read plenty about the limits of Disney’s bus service, and the Animal Kingdom Lodge has a more remote location separate from the monorail resorts. Even so, I doubt the travel to The Magic Kingdom will take longer than arriving by car. Approaching the park by boat or monorail is exciting, but it’s less inspiring when navigating it with young kids. It’s been 10 years since I’ve relied on the bus service at Disney World, so this will be very different. There’s something refreshing about trying something different, even if we regret it. I’ll definitely provide a report after the trip on the times and overall experience of riding the buses.
Limiting the Parks
It’s tempting when visiting for three days to still try and see all four parks. Park-hopper tickets make it possible, and you could combine the Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom into a single day. That felt like overkill, especially given our kids’ ages. Neither will ride the Tower of Terror or Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, which made skipping the Studios easy. The park is also in a state of flux, so I didn’t blink twice about removing it from our plans. The Animal Kingdom was a tougher choice; it was the highlight of our trip last year. It’s also really close to our resort and easy to reach. Even so, I decided to just focus on two parks: The Magic Kingdom and EPCOT.
Given our kids’ ages, two days at The Magic Kingdom is a no brainer. There will be plenty to do, particularly when you consider the holiday crowds. The extra day gives us flexibility to more easily tour the park and not feel so rushed. EPCOT has been my favorite park since the ‘80s, and it needs some upgrades. Even so, there’s still enough to warrant a one-day visit. It will also provide a respite between the two Magic Kingdom days. The wider paths and more limited number of attractions will make it less hectic. EPCOT still has a great atmosphere and just needs more attention to regain its stature.
FastPass Plus Strategies
This will be my second experience with FastPass Plus and the first with a 60-day window. This perk offered more options, particularly with the times. It’s tricky to pick the right strategy with FastPass Plus at The Magic Kingdom. Do you arrive early and pick your times during the mid-day rush? Or do you choose morning times and try to grab extra FastPasses at the kiosks? I chose the latter approach for several reasons. The first is that we aren’t early risers and are unlikely to reach the park before rope drop. We’re more likely to arrive a little after opening. We also don’t move as quickly because of the young kids. It takes quite a while to get moving! It isn’t worth it to force an early start and risk having a tired family after just a few hours in the park.
The other big question is what to choose for the three picks each day. Unlike the other parks, there actually are many possibilities at The Magic Kingdom. I’ve grouped attractions based on location and set up a path for our touring. Having two days allows me to split off Tomorrowland for the second day and avoid too much backtracking. I’m not a fan of FastPass Plus in general, but it does give you the ability to at least set up the first few hours. The kiosks will probably have significant lines, so there will be a trade-off in figuring out whether it’s worth the time. I learned during our last trip that standby can be frustrating as you watch hordes of people walk past you. This can happen even with lower-tier attractions if the timing is bad. The goal is to stay relaxed while building a general plan to avoid bottlenecks and long standby waits.
The wild card of any holiday weekend is the increased crowds, and I’m expecting to see a lot of people. I’m unsure just how large they’ll be, though. This won’t be your typical January visit where touring is easy when you go beyond the headliners. It also shouldn’t be on par with the craziest days like Christmas. The higher attendance this fall at The Magic Kingdom made us question a lot of assumptions about 2016. Will the momentum continue into this year’s normal off-season? If the crowds are higher in general this year, the holiday weekends should really jump.
Even if the paths are tight and the lines are long, I’m optimistic that we’ll have a great trip. There are so many firsts coming, including a visit to Be Our Guest for lunch. The Magic Kingdom has enough other attractions like the Carousel of Progress and the Enchanted Tiki Room to keep us busy. I’ll have plenty of reports on our trip in the upcoming weeks, including some restaurant reviews. It’s going to be a very different experience, and that’s all you can ask for as a Disney World veteran.