By Susan Finch, Taking the Kids Correspondent
ORLANDO, FL (Day 2) — Stepping out to curbside with suitcases, car seat, a 2 1/2 year old and travel crib in tow, I was already overwhelmed. Disney was still a few hours away and we had to get through the busiest airport in the world, Atlanta Hartsfield, down to Orlando and over to the Kingdom. Our young daughter could barely contain her excitement to see “The Castle!” and wanted to get there as soon as possible.
I’ve flown on long overnight legs with no room to stretch; commuter flights with aisles so narrow there were no armrests and plenty of crowded, overbooked flights. But I’ve never experienced anything as seamless as getting down to Disney.
We checked our suitcases in at the Atlanta airport and when we got to Orlando, hopped on the MagicalExpress. Our bags magically arrived in our room a few hours later. We were ready to hit the Kingdom and find as many princesses as our daughter could lay her eyes on.
Staying on resort for a no-stress experience
We barely had to remember anything except our convenient MagicBands that you strap on like a bracelet and use to get into the parks, make purchases and even unlock your hotel room. Other than your bands, some water and quick snacks are always a necessity when you have kids in tow. (Somehow we never remembered umbrellas despite it calling for daily rain, which so far cannot be remedied with Disney magic).
We stayed on the Epcot side at the Atlantic City, turn-of-the-century-style Boardwalk Inn with easy access down to the Boardwalk with restaurants like ESPN Zone, a boat to Epcot and Hollywood studios. I loved being so close we could even walk to Epcot and see the nightly fireworks, but in the future I would pick something close to the Magic Kingdom where my daughter wanted to spend all of her time.
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If you’re on a generational trip and grandma and grandpa struggle a bit to get around, choose a park with quick transportation to whichever park you’re going to frequent the most so family members with varying needs can get back and forth quickly. Families with young children should consider staying on the Magic Kingdom side to zip over on the monorail for a day on the rides.
We opted to take the free shuttle bus from our hotel to Magic Kingdom, though walking to Epcot and then hopping on the monorail was also an option. If you have a park hopper pass, stay on the Epcot side and enjoy a quiet breakfast with the grandparents before heading to the Magic Kingdom or Hollywood Studios.
Epcot is typically less chaotic than the Magic Kingdom and there are fewer lines for rides like Three Caballeros in Mexico at the World Pavilion. My daughter quickly grew obsessed with the rides and wanted to get on anything as quickly as possible once we entered the parks. Once the kids have ridden a few things at Epcot like Finding Nemo, head over to the Kingdom for a snack and start exploring.
Grandparents can choose to stroll through Epcot and meet up later, or brace themselves for an onslaught of Princess meet-and-greets, a splash through the Pirates of the Caribbean and checkout Tomorrow Land. Luckily the free old-fashioned train at Disney takes a spin around the park and makes stops at Frontierland, Fantasyland and Main Street. It makes for convenient transportation, and also a relaxing 20-minute ride if you want to escape the crowds for a few minutes.
If you’re on a budget and want to get the very best value for your money while still staying on resort, go the week after Labor Day or the first week of December. Not only are the lines less during these weeks, but costs are cheaper. If I had to encourage you to pick one, go during early Fall for the best Disney deals.
Quiet spots around Disney
My daughter hasn’t been much of a napper since she edged near 2-years-old (much to my dismay), and was never ready to leave the park. But she still desperately needed quiet time to unwind. Whether you’re a parent, kid or grandparent trying to have fun on the flying Dumbo ride or just got off the Mine Train, a noonday stop is essential.
Use any break to your advantage to do some family bonding over some ice-cold drinks or Mickey ear ice cream. Or just give each other some space while kids go meet Mickey and Tinkerbell while grandparents shop on Main Street. We used the Disney Railroad as a way to get our daughter to sit and relax for nearly a half an hour while still being entertained by the stops.
For a quiet escape, take a raft from Adventureland to Tom Sawyer Island for shade and rocking chairs while the kids explore. The area around Liberty Square is also full of nooks and crannies with benches, and tends to have fewer crowds than the cluster around the castle. Of course, if a nearby show, parade or fireworks start, then your quiet slumber is going to turn into a party.
Epcot has lots of opportunities for quiet spots. Just wander through the World Pavilion. At Epcot, try the United Kingdom courtyard for a garden-side rest with cobblestone walkways. There’s also a quiet garden at the China showcase with a Temple of Heaven replica.
A Disney gem: Fort Wilderness
If you want a close hop from the Kingdom without going back to a resort that’s too far away to make it worthwhile; take a boat from the Magic Kingdom to the Wilderness Lodge at Fort Wilderness. Though I loved the Boardwalk Inn and highly recommend it, I would opt to stay in Fort Wilderness Resort on our next trip.
This wooded forest wasn’t on my radar at all. You would never even know you were even at Disney when taking a hike on one of the well-marked trails or strolling past the horse barn. Guests can stay in the Wilderness Lodge complete with all the modern amenities and cool AC, park an RV, pitch a tent or rent a cabin. The grounds offer horseback riding, nightly Disney movies, roasting marshmallow opportunities and wagon rides.
Fort Wilderness’ General Manager, Jose Mola, shared that many people come to Fort Wilderness on vacation without heading to the theme parks. Instead they opt to set-up their RV, stay in a cabin or in luxury at the Lodge and take advantage of all the activities on the property. I believe it. The resort has pools, archery, animal encounters at the ranch, holiday sleigh rides, pony rides, boat rentals… it’s a pretty expansive list and we haven’t even touched on the arcade.
What struck me is how tranquil and relaxing it was for being just a boat ride (or shuttle bus) away from Disney’s theme parks, not to mention the rest of Orlando. It’s definitely worth looking into if you’re on a trip with the grandparents or kids who need to unwind after endless theme park stimulation. Fort Wilderness still offers plenty of things to do together as a family after watching grandma and grandpa scream their heads off on Space Mountain.
Entertainment without all the rides and lights
My family ate dinner at the campsites and had the pleasure of celebrating the campsite’s Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue‘s 40th anniversary. The supremely talented Pioneer Players put on an entertaining interactive show with singing, jokes and more jokes. Normally I find this type of entertainment to be a bit too corny for my tastes with lots of puns in the mix, but it was so well executed and fun I didn’t want it to end.
Our waitress was proud to share she’d been working at the restaurant for just over 40 years and completely loved it. Her enthusiasm showed as she took the stage before coming down the steps to serve up buckets of fried chicken, ribs and sides. Kids got to take part in the show while a grandfather even (willingly) donned a tutu and did a little dance on stage.
Pick your version of “easy” the Disney way
I admit before the trip, I was thinking of Disney being more like Six Flags on steroids. But Disney is so well executed in everything they do; I nearly forgot it was a theme park at all. I never saw a scrap of garbage lying around our entire visit, and there is something to be said about that Disney magic bubble you enter. Everyone is helpful and the ride cast members were surprisingly cheerful for saying things like, “Step forward and into a boat” hundreds of times a day. Staying on the resort also made all the difference in terms of ease and maximizing time and eliminating stress.
Many families have dual working parents and grandparents who live out of state. There also might be aunts, uncles, cousins, and stepsiblings coming together for one experience. Disney works to help eliminate the family chaos by making things simpler. And your version of that can vary greatly.
But other people might want an escape within an escape. That could mean pitching a tent in the woods at the Wilderness Resort for $49 on up so you can get back to nature after standing in lines all day at Adventureland.
My version of “easy” included never worrying about transportation options or age-appropriate things to do—not to mention doing a little laundry and making a special meal in my suite at the Boardwalk Inn. It also helped that every Disney “cast member” from hotel reception to bus driver to dining cashiers have endless stickers on hand. That’s my daughter’s version of simple happiness.
Susan Finch is a freelance writer specializing in family travel and works with Family Travel Forum, guidebook publishers, Global Traveler and numerous other outlets. She blogs about breaking into freelance to live a flexible and rewarding lifestyle at FreelanceParenthood.com.