This Floridian’s Top 20 Walt Disney World Tips

While on Facebook, I often notice that family and friends from up north are looking  for recommendations for their trip to Disney World…

Maxwell after “surviving” a very harrowing encounter with the Mouse, who he noted is much bigger in person than he is on TV.  Not a fan, as you will see later…

I grew up vacationing at Walt Disney World theme parks with my parents and sister. My love of Disney and a summer job at the parks as a “close personal friend of Pluto” as part of the Disney College Program are what ultimately lead me to move to Florida. Now a local resident of the Orlando area for nearly 15 years, I consider myself a Florida native and I’m pretty well versed in navigating the Disney theme parks.


First, to clarify a few basic elements for those new to Disney parks:

A.  Disneyland = Anaheim, California

B.  Walt Disney World = Orlando, Florida

The Walt Disney World family of parks in southwest Orlando consists of the Magic Kingdom (the one with Cinderella’s Castle), Disney Hollywood Studios (the one with the big theater and Tower of Terror), Animal Kingdom (you guessed it, the one with all the animals) and Epcot Center (the one with all the countries and the big sphere).     


1. Check the Weather Report.  Before you leave check out the average highs, lows, and general weather patterns for that time. I have run a marathon in January at Disney where it was 28 degrees and water stations were literally freezing over into solid ice patches, but in the summer is unforgivingly hot and humid and will certainly reach the high 90s every day.  Most of the time in the winter you will find great weather here with lows in the 60s and highs in the 70s, but it we can have hot days or dip near freezing, so for a winter trip pack some shorts and a bathing suit for that heated pool or hot tub, but also bring a pair of jeans, a few sweaters and a jacket.  (In my teenage years I was admittedly the northerner determined to wear shorts and an t-shirt in the 40 degree weather over a Christmas visit – yes, eventually I bought a slightly overpriced sweatshirt in the park.)  Likewise in the summer, pack whatever will make you most comfortable in the sweltering Florida sun (for me usually just shorts and a tank).  It rains for about an hour each day from June through August in mid-afternoon, so I would opt for flip flops over sneakers to avoid wet socks sloshing around in your shoes(ew!).  Click here to go to the Weather Channel link and check it out.

Max and mommy near Expedition Everest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

2. Ponchos. Since we are already discussing rain, let’s talk ponchos.  Don’t wait until you are being held captive by an August afternoon monsoon to buy your ponchos.  Buy a poncho at Target or Amazon ahead of time and it will be infinitely cheaper, you won’t get caught in the rain without one, and you won’t match every other person in the park wearing the mouse issued rainwear.  I also like to throw a large ziplock bag in my purse or diaper bag so we can throw our phones in there if the rain gets terrible.

3. Sunscreen.  Bring multiple bottles, spray cans and sticks along from home.  You will inevitably lose some of these along the way, and paying for replacements at the parks will be pricey.  And yes, you need sunscreen down here, even in the winter people! 

Max and daddy patiently waiting to board Dumbo the Flying Elephant.

4. Timing.  When you live in Orlando its easy to pop over to the parks for a few hours and then be back home for dinner. For those who are coming in from out of town, it can cost a substantial amount of money, so make sure you consider when is the best time to visit for what you want to experience.  Typically Presidents Day Weekend, Spring Break, Summer Break (June through mid September), Thanksgiving and Christmas Day are super busy times to visit, and often times the weekends are also busier with locals heading to the parks after the work week. During these times the parks will be crowded and the lines longer.  Some folks can only go when the kiddos are off school which I totally get, but just be aware that things will be a bit backed up.

5. Download Apps.  There are lots of apps available out there that provide information about the parks, including maps, lists of attractions, and the best of them will include up to date projected wait times for the attractions.  These are a great tool to help plan your day and take advantage of shorter lines when they occur.  Disney’s official “My Disney Experience” app includes park maps (so you don’t need those loose brochures cluttering up your bags), wait times for attractions and characters, locates restaurants, entertainment, restrooms among lots of other information.  You can enter your park pass information in this app and link your family and friends so you can reserve Fast Passes for your entire group with the swipe of a finger. 

Sample of the map with attractions and wait times on the My Disney Experience app.

6. What the heck is a Fast Pass?  Disney allows guests to reserve an exact time to reserve up to 3 attractions (including character experiences) in advance of your visit, subject to availability.  Arrive at the attraction within one hour after the designated time and you will essentially walk onto the ride with little to no wait.  As soon as you use your passes you may visit kiosks designated in the parks to get 3 new fast passes.  This is a great tool to use your time efficiently and bypass lines.  Use your apps to scout out the attractions that you don’t want to miss that have the longest wait times.  I also like to get Fast Passes for peak times during the day when the most visitors are in the parks.  Beware that new and popular attractions fill up fast, so try to get on-line as quickly as possible.  (And if you happen to miss your time slot, you just may be able to go to a guest services kiosk and nicely ask them if you could pretty please have another time, and many times they will give you a new one.) 

How to select Fast Passes from the My Disney Experience App.

7. Parade.  Disney parades can be pretty spectacular, especially the holiday ones, but once you have seen one parade I wouldn’t wait around for another.  People will line up well in advance to scope out a clutch parade watching spot, and the parade can end up being a time vampire in the middle of the day.  The parades usually pull people away from the attractions, so consider taking advantage of these times to hit those busy rides that you couldn’t get Fast Passes for. 

Splash Mountain is one of the more popular attractions at the Magic Kingdom which can have some of the longest lines in the park.

 

8. On-site Hotels. Staying at hotels on Disney property (approximately 43 square miles of it to be more exact) affords you lots of extra perks, including bus service to and from the airport, and around Disney property to the various parks. Staying at an official Disney hotel also provides guests with the opportunity to enter one park early each day, called “Extra Magic Hours” which can allow you to get a jump on other park guests not staying on-site.  Another perk of staying on-site is the availability of one of the Disney dining plans that allow the members of your party to eat several meals a day for a fixed fee. Each member of your party will be given a Magic Band, which is a bracelet you will wear throughout your stay that will all you to open the door to your hotel, gain entrance to the parks, and at your option charge items at your hotel or in the parks back to your room.

My nephew checking out the Toy Story area of the Disney All Star Movie Resort.

 

9. Where the #%$! Did I Park?  If driving, be sure to either take a photo of the section and row you parked, or text the information to someone else in your party.  Nothing is worse than looking through ten thousand cars at the end of a long day, or during a rain storm when you are fleeing the park with crying kids (or adults for that matter)!

These photos may help save marriages and relationships.  Just take it.  Thank me later… (This photo courtesy of my good friend Lisa F.) 

 

 

10. runDisney.  I have run 4 marathons, three half marathons and a 10K as part of the runDisney series of races on resort property, right in my own back yard.  Walt Disney World started its endurance series in 1994 with the first marathon on property, and the events have grown in number and size ever since.  Each January more than 20,000 people run the annual Walt Disney World Marathon, in addition to the Half Marathon, 5K and other family events.  Now the world of Walt Disney World’s runDisney series includes the Princess Half Marathon, Star Wars Half Marathon, Wine and Dine Half Marathon, as well as a number of other 5K, 10K and 13K (Twilight Zone Tower of Terror run) races.  These events are top notch in planning, water stops and cheerleaders along the way, and its an amazing adrenaline rush to buzz through Cinderella’s castle during a marathon or have thousands of people cheer for you when you cross the finish line.   Because of these perks and the great location, lots of first time marathoners pick this as their first race, so unless you have a good qualifying time to be placed into a top coral you may be starting an hour behind the gun in a delayed coral release behind 15,000 of your closest friends (translation, it can get a bit congested for runners in the back to get around the walkers).  There are lots of family events throughout these weekends, and Disney transportation helps spectators get all around Disney property.  For non-racers, these events can clog up the roads and parks for the entire weekend so plan your vacation accordingly and try to avoid these times or go off site these days and visit other attractions.  A list of the races and dates can be found at the runDisney link in the beginning of this section.

11. Babies.  Each theme park has a designated Baby Care Center that includes full bathrooms, areas to prepare food, nurse and change babies, feed little ones, and buy any food, supplies or medicine you may have forgotten.  The one at Epcot Center is the biggest and best, including a little kid TV room, and its located in the corner of Future World near the Mexico pavilion.  It’s also a great way to escape the heat and crowds and relax for a little while with your little one.  While talking about babies, and other smaller children in your party, please don’t be too crestfallen if your little one cries, hits, screams, runs away or otherwise comes unglued during the big character meet and greet that you have magically dreaming of in your head since you booked your vacation.  As a new mommy and as a “close personal friend of Pluto” I can tell you that the reactions are varied, and some babies love the Mouse, but you may want to save standing in line or spending one of your fast passes for a character meet and greet until your little one is a bit older.

Literally running away from Mickey Mouse.

Maxwell is giving Mickey his death stare.  Hopefully we will have better luck next year!

12. Strollers.  Disney rents strollers so you don’t need to bring your own, but they are hard plastic and look a tad bit uncomfortable to me so we bring our own.   I pack a small diaper bag with essentials, and for my little dude’s lunch we pack a separate mini cooler and put in the bottom of the stroller.   I also make sure my stroller has at least one cup holder and a caddy to easily put pacifiers, toys, snack cups, etc. in a pinch.  You will have to park your stroller outside some restaurants and most attractions.  If you come out and your stroller isn’t there, don’t be alarmed, it probably hasn’t been stolen but just moved.  Disney posts one or more people to help consolidate the strollers and maximize the room for available stroller parking outside of the busier attractions.  If this totally freaks you out, consider adding a little flag or bright tape to the top of your stroller to help it stand out.  

Little dude is tuckered out in his Uppababy G-luxe stroller.  This stroller is a great hybrid has the ease of an umbrella stroller with the comfort of the bigger bulkier models out there.  Its super lightweight, easy to push, reclines (he’s fully upright here), has lots of storage underneath, sunshade and adjustable footrest that folds down.  Worth every penny.

 

13. Dine Wisely.  If you aren’t doing a Disney Dining meal plan during your stay, plan your meals wisely.  The price tag for a sit down breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and drinks throughout the day for a family of four could completely zap a huge chunk of your overall vacation budget.  To help keep that $ under control, here are some tips to help.  Start your vacation with a quick trip to the grocery store to buy breakfast items, drinks and snacks for the week.  Eat breakfast before leaving your room, and bring snacks and a water bottle with you for the day.  Refill your water bottle at fountains throughout the park.  When you order lunch or dinner, get ice waters and ask for refills, or if you need to you can simply order water at a fast service restaurant kiosk.  (It is usually so hot that hydrating with water all day instead of soda is good idea regardless of your motivation.  Consider brining some Gatorade or lemonade powder packets if you can’t stomach water all day long alone.)  If you want to purchase snacks, buy a refillable souvenir popcorn bucket in the parks and pay a nominal fee to get popcorn throughout your stay.  You can also buy a refillable souvenir mug back at the hotel that you can refill for a small fee.  And finally, Coca Cola sponsors a pavilion at Epcot Center (on the right side right at the end of Future World if you are leaving Spaceship Earth and headed toward World Showcase) where you can sample soda flavors from around the world.  Don’t anticipate filling up your water bottle here, but good for a sugary pick me up for sure. 

14. Pace Yourself.  Hitting the parks for an entire vacation is a marathon, not a sprint.  You don’t have to do it all in one day.  Pace yourself and use your time wisely.  For every one or two days at the parks, plan a rest day at the pool or a nearby beach.  Arrive early before the parks open to take advantage of short lines early in the day before everyone arrives, use parade times to your advantage to hit more rides, take a break back at your hotel during the hottest time of the day and take a nap (adults and kids!), and stay later when everyone leaves to take advantage of the shorter lines again.

Enjoying the fishys and the AC following the Finding Nemo ride (a/k/a The Living Seas) at Epcot Center.

 

15. Ride Swap.  If some of the little ones in your party can’t go on the big kid rides, Disney offers ride swap.  Whether you have a Fast Pass or simply stand in line, one adult can ride the big kid rides while the other adult waits in a designated area with the little ones, and when the first adult is done the adults can swap for the second one to ride while the first adult waits.  This way you don’t have to miss out on a rides like Expedition Everest and Space Mountain!

16. Kid Souvenirs.  Even though our little dude is still pretty young, I’ve learned these things visiting the parks with friends with older kids.   If you have a child that just has to dress up as their favorite character or princess, buy these costumes or princess dresses ahead of time on Amazon or elsewhere and bring them on vacation with you and you will save a pretty penny (maybe even surprise them in the room with a present your first night there, and they will think you are even more awesome!).  Also, beware that half of the attractions will exit directly into a character themed gift shop, so move swiftly though the exit to the next attraction and tell the kids that you have to “hurry” to get to before it closes.  Another trick is to buy a preloaded Disney gift card for each child before you leave so that they have a set amount they can spend, and once the card is empty, no more souvenirs.

17. Outside the Parks.  In addition to the four main theme parks on Disney Property, there are lots of other great attractions including the Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon water parks, golf courses, resort spas, Disney’s Boardwalk, Disney’s Wide World of Sports (hosting a variety of sporting events, including spring training and football training camps) and the newest addition, Disney Springs.  What once included the Downtown Disney shopping area and the nightclubs of Pleasure Island has been converted to a new themed entertainment area with both Disney themed and other high end stores for shopping, exciting new restaurants (including Morimotos and STK), movie theaters and other entertainment areas, which architecture inspired by Florida’s waterfront towns.

Disney Springs shopping area.

 

18. EPCOT Festivals.  Each year from March through May, Epcot pretties up its amazing landscaping even more than usual and hosts the annual Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival, including beautiful topiaries, butterfly gardens, art and garden pop up shops, and some additional food and beverage stations.  It’s a wonderful time of year for the weather too.  Then from the end of  from the end of  September through mid-November you can attend the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, which includes 30 themed food and beverage kiosks in addition to the ones already found in World Showcase.  These kiosks include small food, beer and wine samplings for a small price.  In addition, there are cooking demonstrations, food and wine seminars and other events you can attend, and a daily concert series called “Eat with the Beat” where groups like Wilson Phillips, Hanson, or Big Bad Voo Doo Daddy just might show up.  You can attend both festivals you admission to the parks, but additional fees apply for certain events, and food and beverage selections.  These are two of my favorite Disney events and I usually will go to Food and Wine every year in honor of my fall birthday.  If you aren’t interested in attending but still want to go to the park, just keep in mind that these events will make Epcot a little more crowded than usual. 

The crowds can be a bit much during Food and Wine, so try to avoid weekends, especially the first and last weekend of the festival.  I have heard that it will start as of August 31 in 2017.

 

19. Leave During Fireworks.  As of 2017, each of the parks will have either fireworks or some other type of night time light display show.  The music, visuals, and presentation of it all will leave you in awe and they are worth seeing if you are up for it. That being said, if you stay for the nighttime fireworks or other show be prepared to slowly sift out of the park an hour later.  Lines for the monorail, boats, shuttles and to leave the parking lots can be quite long at the end of the day, so just make sure you are in it for the long haul.  Or… watch the first 10 minutes and then start leaving before the event wraps up – get the best of both worlds!

20. Drinking Around the World. I plan to dedicate a future post just to this topic, but it is worth a footnote here as well.  If you have not heard of this before, people will go to the park and have one drink in every country of Epcot’s World Showcase, including Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, US, Japan, Morocco, France, United Kingdom and Canada, thus the catchy name “Drinking Around the World.”   It’s all in good fun, and while I’m sure it has happened from time to time, I’ve not seen anyone get completely out of control (or if they have, I assure you they would be promptly removed from the park).   I have tried this myself but have never made it through more than the first few countries.  If you chose to do this, please make sure you take several hours to accomplish this, or you will most certainly be sick.  Drink lots of water, take lots of embarrassing photos of your friends, and either pick a responsible designated driver, take the Disney transportation system back to your hotel, or catch a taxi or Uber back to your final destination.  It is really a good time if you are somewhat responsible, but I would do this sometime that grandma and grandpa are with you to watch the kiddos elsewhere.  That being said, the beer in Germany and the Grand Marnier frozen drinks in France are AMAZING!

Also be sure to try the La Cava tequila bar inside the pyramid at the Mexico pavilion.

I hope that that these tips above are helpful.  I would love to hear from you if you have more questions or any tips to pass along yourself, so please click on the Contact page to get in touch.  Good luck on your pilgrimage to see the Mouse! And for more details right directly from the Walt Disney World website,  CLICK HERE.

My Mom’s Cranberry Relish

I am a food lover, maybe even a foodie, but I am definitely challenged in the kitchen.  Given that my husband is an amazing cook who will often take an entire afternoon to make a gourmet meal on the weekend, this hasn’t helped me develop my skills any further.


That being said, Thanksgiving is the one holiday where I may actually cook a majority of the dishes.  My mom gave me a failsafe recipe for cranberry relish, and I make it every year now.


I love it because it is ridiculously delicious, takes less than 10 minutes to make, and it is actually best when made a day or two ahead of time so all the juices marinate.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 Orange – the whole thing
  • 1 1/2 Cups Freah Cranberries
  • 3/4 Cup Sugar
  • Optional- 1/2 Granny Smith Apple

(I use Truvia instead of sugar because I think it tastes just as good as using sugar, and it is a delicious naturally based sweetener so it is pretty healthy.  Generally, use 1/2 the amount of Truvia for sugar for any recipe.)

Wash all ingredients thoroughly.  Chop the Orange in quarters (and cut the 1/2 Apple in half) and place all ingredients in a food processor.  Chop all ingredients until it reaches a coleslaw like consistency.  (Don’t purée or you will make cranberry soup!)


Store in a Tupperware container in the refrigerator overnight.  Serve cold as a side, or as an amazing topping for sandwiches!

Max loves it too!

Girls Weekend : St. Pete Beach

Although we graduated (an undisclosed) number of years ago, my law school girlfriends and I just got back from our very first reunion trip.  Some of us have children, all of us work, and each year seems to get busier than the next, but about half a year ago we all put aside time for a long girls weekend.  Three of us live in Florida so it made sense to stay in state, and St. Pete Beach was a good middle ground to meet up.


This was also a monumental trip for me because it was my first trip away from Max for more than a portion of a day.  Although I have spent a night away once or twice, I’ve at least been able to give him a kiss good morning or goodnight.  I knew it was going to be difficult leaving my dude, but as difficult as it was, I knew it was very healthy for me to have some time away, and I had an amazing time catching up with old friends and mentally recharging for the first time in well over a year.  I know that daddy had an awesome bonding weekend hanging out with Max (more than likely eating wings and watching football). Daddy has had several bachelor parties and some other guys trips over the last several years, so it was finally mommy’s turn for a mini vacay.

There are several beautiful hotels in area, but we chose the historic  Don CeSar hotel.


Developed by Thomas Rowe, this iconic pink resort cost over $1.25 million to construct and finally opened in 1928.  In its heyday during the height of the jazz age, the resort welcomed guests such as Al Capone, President Franklin Roosevelt, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Lou Gerig.  After staying at the resort once again, I can just imagine the ballrooms filled with women smoking long cigarettes wearing flapper dresses, and men wearing tails playing poker in the back rooms.  In the 1940s the hotel fell into disrepair and was converted to a military hospital and Veterans Administration Regional Office.  In the late 1960s the military vacated the building and the property reopened as a hotel once again in 1972.  Today the Don CeSar is a member of the National Trust of Historic Hotels has been named to the US National Register of Historic Places.


Our trip wasn’t quite as sophisticated as the grand parties of the jazz age, but it was perfect all the same.  We arrived on a Friday morning and spent the afternoon sipping cocktails by the pool.  That night we caught up over a late sunset dinner and night out on the town.

For the rest of Saturday and Sunday, we spent the most of our time lounging under umbrellas on the amazing white sand beaches and enjoying the crystal clear water.  I’m telling you, the sand was like warm soft sugar.


J Crew Factory Popover Tunic | Similar Gap Hat

When we weren’t on the beach, I checked out the cute nearby bungalow houses during my morning runs, some were likely nearly as old as the pretty Don Cesar.  Also noteworthy was Shrimpy’s Blue Bistro, a great southern brunch spot with the perfect combination of bloody mary’s and cheesy grits.


I think the sign of a true friendship is evidenced by the ability to feel like you just saw each other yesterday despite the fact that you may not have been together for years.  Being with good friends is easy, peaceful, makes your heart full all at the same time.  It’s amazing being able to pick up right where you left off without missing a beat.  I love all of these girls and I really hope we keep our promise of trying to do an annual trip from now on.


The weekend was a perfect combination of relaxing, laughing, talking, and taking in the beautiful scenery.  When I arrived home, I was so very happy to scoop my little nugget in my arms and give him the biggest hugs.  (And now I can’t wait to plan my next trip with my boys!)

Show Me Your MuMu Bikini Bottom | Show Me Your MuMu Bikini Top

Halloween Decorating with a Little Monkey

I loved Walt Disney World’s Haunted Mansion ride for as long as I can remember, and any excuse to get dressed up is welcome in my book, so it’s only natural that Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. Although Max was a few weeks old for Halloween last year, this is the first year he was interactive and it was so fun seeing him study all the decorations, listen to the spooky music, and watch all the other trick-or-treaters in our neighborhood.

This year Max dressed up as a little monkey baby for Halloween night, as well as his events at school, and mommy’s Halloween celebration at work. He was scrumptious as usual, but I couldn’t leave him in his costume for too long because it is still getting into the 80’s during the daytime and those costumes can get a little spicy!


This year I bought a few more skeletons for the porch, and I hope to take advantage of some post-Halloween sales so I can retire out some of my more worn decorations. That being said, I don’t think you have to break the bank or cover your entire house with clutter to help set a spooky mood. Before you do any post Halloween shopping this week, below are a few of my Halloween decorating tips!

1. Use what you have, just add a little funk. This year I bought several bouquets of pretty flowers earlier in the month, and when they started turn I hung the flowers to dry and put them back in the vases to decorate the tables, and my skeleton on the front porch held a bouquet in her left hand while she held an empty wine glass in the right.



2. Soundtrack! I hand selected every song for the playlist for my wedding reception, so it’s no surprise that I have a soundtrack for Halloween too. I keep a mixture of my favorite spooky sounds and the soundtrack to Disney’s Haunted Mansion on loop that plays on a Bluetooth tombstone speaker I have outside. Hand held speakers are a dime a dozen these days, so you could pick one up at Target or Walgreens for just a few dollars and have on hand any time you want music. With I-tunes, it is super easy to build a spooky soundtrack to your liking.

3. Lighting. A few years ago I bought some bulbs on Amazon that change color by remote control. I use these lights on my front porch to help set the mood from above, and I also use them inside as backlighting for the spooky ghosts in my window. On Halloween night I place them under a glass table (that we already have) covered by a regular old white lace table cloth (that we already have), and it creates a great little area to stage the candy bowl. Because you can change the colors, I use these lights to help set the mood for lots of other holidays as well.


4. Statement Pieces. Instead of loading up your shopping cart with 20 hanging ghosts, streamers and every trinket the store has to offer, focus on just one or two cool new purchases each year. As with a good wardrobe, a few key pieces in holiday decorating can go a long way. My favorite decoration is my skeleton butler that talks with a moving mouth and illuminated eyes when people pass by. It creates fun interaction with the kids when they go up on the front porch, and it adds an element of personal greeting when you might not be there yourself because you are out trick or treating with your little one. (I am eyeing this one for next year -I’m a sucker for the Pirates of the Caribbean in addition to that Haunted Mansion!)

5. Vignettes. Instead of putting a ghost or vampire in every area of your house, focus on a few little staged areas and do them up right. It helps prevent your house from feeling too cluttered, and those areas you do decorate will pack a big punch.

Hope you all had a great Halloween, and enjoy your post Halloween shopping for next year!