Earlier this year, I became adamant that 2022 would be the year we would finally take that big family trip to Walt Disney World we’d been dreaming about since before the pandemic. I declared this decision to my husband and our three kids over dinner one evening, despite the fact that it completely ignored one minor detail: I hate theme parks. From the loud crowds and ridiculously long lines to the processed food and exorbitant prices, spending sunrise to sundown (not to mention back-to-back days) doing all the things I loathe is pretty much the antithesis of my kind of vacation.
But during the pandemic, as two long and lonely years ticked by and our children grew and their interests changed, I packed away our boys’ beloved Disney Cars and Planes collection that used to consume hours of their play time. We gave away the Toy Story figures that I had once spent months frantically curating character-by-character on eBay. And I watched our daughter’s Disney princess dress obsession wane from daily attire to a forgotten pile of sequins and tulle.
I felt an almost palpable sense of nostalgia slowly start to set in over the course of those two years. And while I realize it was more about fleeting childhood moments than it ever was about taking a trip to meet Mickey, I also grew determined to make that quintessential experience happen for our family while our youngest was finally old enough to brave long lines and big rides and our oldest was still young-hearted enough to enjoy the endless enchantment on offer.
As soon as school was out for the summer, we took off for Disney World, where we experienced the most magically exhausting week of our lives. If you’re considering a trip to Disney World, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, here are 10 takeaways that made our week at The Most Magical Place on Earth less daunting and more enjoyable than I ever imagined.
1. Leave the planning to a pro.
As a travel writer, one of my favorite parts of every trip is planning out our own adventures. I’d never considered utilizing the savvy services of a travel agent … until Disney. It only took a couple of clicks on www.disneyworld.disney.go.com to realize I did not have the time, desire, nor mental stamina –– it takes around 80 hours for the typical person to plan a Disney vacation –– to plan out our ultimate Disney World trip.
I called up Melissa Ulrich, travel advisor/agency owner of Trips to the Mouse, which specializes in helping busy families plan unforgettable vacations, to come to my rescue. A few detailed phone conversations and email exchanges with Ulrich yielded the most impeccably planned itinerary I’ve ever laid eyes on, complete with daily schedules tailored to our family’s interests, embedded with insider tips and how-to videos for making our top rides and attractions happen each day, and studded with lunch and dinner reservations at some of Disney’s best restaurants.
“Our clients can be as involved as they want to be, or they can leave it all up to me,” Ulrich says. “I get to know a family very quickly and know what their interests are, what hotels they would like best, and what the must do’s or not-to-miss experiences are for each family.”
While we had the ultimate say when it came to hotel and restaurant selection, Ulrich did all of the hard work by narrowing down the vast sea of options into a short list that would most appeal to our family. Trust me when I say this: the modest travel planning fee I paid her ($300) was beyond worth the time and energy she put into organizing our perfect trip.
2. Soak in the magic, but don’t make it a marathon.
Standing at the edge of Magic Kingdom’s picture-perfect Main Street during Disney World’s 50th Anniversary Celebration as a colorful cavalcade of your favorite characters rolls past –– Mickey and Minnie, Peter Pan and Tinker Bell, Tiana, Rapunzel, and Ariel –– you can’t help but feel Disney’s pixie dust beginning to work its magic on you.
But Magic Kingdom alone has six themed lands — Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Tomorrowland and Main Street — and there’s more than you can see and do in a single day. After a long and tiring 12-hour, 12-mile day at Magic Kingdom, we still had the Disney Enchantment 50th anniversary fireworks waiting for us. Instead of sticking around to view the sparkling spectacular over Cinderella Castle with the masses, we followed Ulrich’s advice and rode the monorail over to Disney’s Polynesian Resort, where we rested our feet while enjoying cool air conditioning, craft cocktails and a sushi dinner before traipsing down to the sandy beach where we soaked in the stunning fireworks show, synchronized to Disney music, sparkling over the water.
3. Disney boasts the best rides. Ever.
At Magic Kingdom, we were whisked away to the world of 17th-century swashbuckling and “Yo-Ho”-ing pirates as we voyaged atop the shadowy seas on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, which actually inspired the famed Johnny Depp-starring film series. We also loved the family-friendly and fun Seven Dwarfs Mine Train coaster, journeying through Tomorrowland’s dark indoor coaster Space Mountain, and swirling around the colorful Mad Tea Party –– a dizzying spin-off of the 1955 opening-day Disneyland attraction.
Epcot’s Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind debuted just three days before our trip, and it is without a doubt one of Disney’s best rides yet. We couldn’t stop smiling on this family-thrill coaster, which takes you on an intergalactic chase through time and space, featuring Guardians of the Galaxy characters and a Marvel-ous (get it?) mixtape of tunes from the ‘70s and ‘80s that will literally have you singing between screams.
For our Star Wars-obsessed crew, Hollywood Studios’ new Star Wars-themed rides and design featuring droids, speeders and larger-than-life spacecraft was a huge hit. We all loved Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance –– the immersive experience begins as you are captured by a fleet of storm troopers and ends with a thrilling chase to escape the First Order –– and Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run, which gives riders the chance to pilot Han Solo’s famous ship. Our kids also loved making their own droids at Droid Depot, a workshop stocked with parts, chips and build stations where you can construct your own remote-control droid to take home as a souvenir (reservations are required and it costs $100 per droid).
Arrive early to Animal Kingdom, where you’ll get close-up glimpses of elephants, giraffe, rhinos and more on the exciting Kilimanjaro Safari and all along the park’s shady tree-lined paths. But don’t overlook Animal Kingdom’s incredible rides, like our favorite: Avatar Flight of Passage. This must-do Avatar-themed attraction uses 3D simulating technology to make you feel as if you’re soaring high above Pandora on the back of a banshee, literally taking your breath away as you fly through waterfalls and dip into canyons. The Yeti-themed Expedition Everest was a close second favorite, where you weave through a Tibetan village on a storytelling adventure before riding a thrilling coaster complete with drops, turns and backwards surprises (our youngest did not enjoy this intense ride).
4. Reserving Disney rides is a rat race.
We purchased Park Hopper tickets, which allows access to multiple parks in one day, as well as Disney Genie+ service, which lets guests make selections for Lightening Lane entry at their top attractions each day. By 7 a.m. sharp each day, my husband and I had both of our iPhones at the ready so we could nab our family’s top rides, which sell out within seconds. In addition to the stomach-churning sum of money you’ll pay for Disney tickets and fast passes, there’s at least one headliner ride at each park you’ll have to pay extra for just to guarantee you’ll get to ride it. I won’t lie: This was stressful. But I’m glad we were prepared for the process, thanks to Ulrich’s helpful tips.
“Disney is constantly changing and evolving,” says Ulrich. “Having someone who can help decipher those changes and pivot quickly to teach you how to get the most value out of your vacation is key.”
We watched her how-to instructional videos on the plane, reviewed her suggested list of priority rides for our family each evening at dinner, and by dawn the next morning, we were locking in our favorite rides for the day.
5. Prioritize your must-do’s.
You’re not going to have enough time to see and do everything at Disney World. Ulrich suggests setting a priority list consisting of every person in the family’s one must-do for the day.
“The reality is that you could spend weeks at Disney, on either coast, and not see it all,” she says. “Every person in the family needs to set a must do each day.”
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6. Dine your way through Disney.
When it comes to dining at Disney, there are myriad options. You can eat your meals on the go, fairly quickly and inexpensively in every park. But if you’re not a fan of greasy theme park food, not to worry. Disney boasts a handful of impressive restaurants, and while most sit-down restaurants require advanced reservations and are pricier than grab-and-go options, we enjoyed those longer lunch and dinner breaks to cool off from the heat and rest our feet, decompress from the crowds and refuel for whatever came next.
Some recommended Disney dining spots? Our dog-obsessed daughter loved lunching at Tony’s Town Square Restaurant in Magic Kingdom –– it’s modeled after the restaurant featured in Lady and the Tramp and ordering a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs makes for an Instagram-worthy photo. When our kids collectively decided they were too mature for our scheduled character lunch with Donald and Daisy, we pivoted to Animal Kingdom’s Nomad, where we dined on small plate bites and sipped colorful cocktails on the outdoor veranda overlooking a lush rainforest where we watched fluttering butterflies and saw Pocahontas and Meeko float by just around the riverbend.
Eating (and drinking) our way through Epcot along the World Showcase promenade was by far our favorite way to spend our evenings. Located just steps from our hotel, Disney’s Beach Club, I sipped prosecco in Italy and sangria in Morocco while my husband enjoyed Bavarian-style beers in Germany and our kids sipped bubble milk teas from China. Our hibachi dinner at Teppan Edo in Epcot’s Japan was an unforgettable interactive dining experience that allowed our oldest to practice his beginner Japanese with our chef. And indulging in a rich and savory French dinner at Chefs de France provided the perfect finale meal to our Disney trip.
7. Pencil in a break day.
You can’t really comprehend Disney-level exhaustion before experiencing it. According to our Apple watches, we walked at least 10 miles every Disney park day –– not surprising considering we were out of our room by 8 a.m. and didn’t return until after 10 p.m. I am so thankful Ulrich recommended scheduling in a break day between all the park action.
In fact, our day off was one of the highlights of our trip. I went on a morning run while our kids caught up on sleep until it was time for brunch. We finally had time to take advantage of our hotel’s three-acre water wonderland where we swam all afternoon, taking breaks for ice cream sundaes, beach volleyball and kid crafts on the beach. We strolled over to the Walt Disney World Swan Hotel where my daughter and I got manicures and pedicures at the spa before concluding our “day off” with an indulgent Italian dinner of handmade pappardelle and rigatoni at Il Mulino. By the next morning, we were rested and ready for a few more days chock-full of Disney park fun.
8. Plan ahead and bring your wallet.
We were originally considering Disney World for our kids’ spring break, but we quickly realized a trip to see Mickey requires some advanced planning.
“If you can plan a Disney trip six months out –– or even three months out –– you have time to lay the groundwork for where you want to stay, which parks you want to visit and which restaurants you want to dine at,” advises Ulrich. “If really have your heart set on certain things, the further out you plan, the more likely you are to get them –– plus, you can lock in better pricing.”
While you can increase or decrease your Disney budget based on where you stay, where you eat and what you do, be prepared: it won’t be cheap. While we definitely spent more for the convenience of staying at a Disney property and dining at pricier sit-down restaurants, this was one of the most expensive family trips we’ve ever taken. The Disney-themed T-shirts we spotted parents wearing throughout the park aptly displayed our exact sentiments with spot-on phrases like: “Most Financially Irresponsible Day Ever” and “I’m Just Here to Pay for Everything.”
9. Disney World too daunting? Consider Disneyland.
We’ve dabbled in both Disneyland and Disney World years ago when our kids were little –– each for one day only –– during separate trips to Anaheim and Orlando. And I can tell you that Disneyland, comprised of only two side-by-side walkable theme parks, is hands-down a more manageable, less overwhelming experience than Disney World.
“Disneyland is more spontaneous and less stressful,” says Ulrich, who often recommends Disneyland for first timers and families with young children. “You don’t have to be on your phone at 7 a.m. to make your reservations because you can’t make them until you are actually in the park, which spreads the demand out. Plus, it’s where the magic all started –– it’s the only Disney park that Walt was ever in, so it’s extra special.”
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10. Disney World is more than a theme park.
Standing in line for the Haunted Mansion at Magic Kingdom, we met a woman from Idaho –– completely across the country –– who giddily confessed this was her fourth Disney World trip of 2022. (It was only June!)
Spoiler alert: This will not be us. Although we’re not devout enough Disney-fans to return on repeat vacations each year (or every few months), I also discovered that you can’t declare Disney isn’t your teacup without ever spinning into its enchantment. Disney World is much more than a theme park –– it truly is a magical world of its own where you can get lost in the narrative of your favorite Disney fantasies.
“Disney brings the stories to life that your kids cherish, and that you cherished as a child,” Ulrich says. “You get to be a kid again. The magic is just so real there, and to be able to see it from different perspectives –– as a child, and through your kids’ eyes –– well, that’s what Disney does better than anywhere else.”
We all left feeling like we needed a vacation after our Disney vacation, but we also came back with some unforgettable memories we will always cherish from the week we spent at The Most Magical Place on Earth.
If You Go
Multiple airlines fly direct from Austin to Orlando International Airport (MCO). If you stay at a Disney resort, there’s no need to rent a car.
We stayed at Disney’s Beach Club Resort, a picture-perfect New England-style resort which features a three-acre water wonderland complete with sparkling pools and lagoons, a lazy river and a life-size shipwreck with water slides. Amenities are shared with its sister property, Disney’s Yacht Club Resort, and it’s a minute-long walk to Epcot, a quick boat ride across the lake to Hollywood Studios, a bus ride from the front of the hotel to both Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom, and a quarter-mile loop to the restaurants, shops and entertainment sprinkled along Disney’s BoardWalk.
Eat + Drink
In addition to grab-and-go theme park options, Disney boasts some incredible restaurants, but you’ll need advanced reservations. Some of our favorites included: Teppan Edo and Chefs de France (Epcot), Tony’s Town Square Restaurant (Magic Kingdom), Nomad (Animal Kingdom), Il Mulino (Walt Disney World Swan Hotel) and Trattoria al Forno (Disney’s BoardWalk).