Apr 26, 2023

Disney World

This trip was originally planned as a larger family trip in 2019 that got postponed because hurricane Dorian hit Orlando the day our flights were booked for, and the rescheduling of multiple flights and the week’s plans were a lot, so we pushed it to April of 2020. We all know what happened there. Earlier this year we finally agreed at least the three of us should take a family vacation and it’s hard to find as place to divorce yourself from reality with a kid that isn’t Disney.

My last experience with anything Disney related was a small trip to Disneyland in 2018 while we were already in California for a wedding. It was the first week of September so the parks were as close to empty as they could get for Disney — you could pretty much walk on any ride, wait at most 30 minutes for a table at a restaurant, FastPass / rider swap anything. I knew that wouldn’t be the case this time, but things I found online varied from the seemingly insane (wake up at 5am to get dinner reservations, wake up before 7am to book rides) to Orlando-local nonchalant takes like “just show up 5 minutes before the park closes”. So here are some of my notes, a person who does not live in Orlando and is not overly Disney crazy:

Table of Contents

Planning and General Trip Notes

  • Go sometime “off season”. I went off this crowd calendar to pick a date, there’s a lot of other sites that have surprisingly deep statistics on the park to help you plan. I personally wouldn’t go any time where most days aren’t below average but you do you.
  • If you’re staying in the park, reserve dinning the first day you can for every day. You can cancel up to 2 hours before, and you can try to find something that fits better closer to your actual dates, but if I was distilling my advice down to one thing it would be “any plan is better than no plan”.
  • Disney used to offer free bus transport to and from the airport (MCO), but they stopped recently. We hired a car (Tiffany Towncar, specifically), and they did a free1 stop at a grocery store on the way to the hotel so you can stock up on snacks, water, and alcohol at non-Disney prices. Also it’s just you, so they go direct to your resort, which could save 20 - 40 minutes depending on where you’re staying.
  • If you’re coming from New England JetBlue lands at the new terminal (C) in MCO. It’s basically empty and easy to get through.
  • More than likely someone in your party will get sick on the trip. I drew the short straw this time. Plan for the best, expect the worst, I guess. We always try to stay at a place with a fun pool to either just take a day off and go swimming or put some buffer in the schedule.
  • We did everything through the phone app, skipping Magic Bands. I could see getting one for pool trips so everything can stay in the room, but otherwise the app was fine. It has some technical glitches from time to time and going from the wait time map to the Tip Board is painfully slow and unintuitive, as is finding the “unlock room” button, but it works. Occasionally the passes in Apple Wallet or the room unlock will trigger the phone to jump to the first credit card in your wallet which feels appropriate for a Disney trip.

Park strategy, or, how to actually get on a ride

  • Do Genie+ every day. The app shows standby wait times but the standby lanes are like buying a third class ticket on the Titanic. Even though it costs money I liked Genie+ more than Fastpass because we could plan a few rides before we even got to the park.

  • If there’s something you really want to ride and it has either an Individual Lightning Lane (ILL) or Standby, pay the mouse and do ILL. If you wanted to save money you should have not come to Disney. If you want to try to figure out what 2 hours of your life standing in a line in the Orlando sunshine is worth, you’ll probably calculate it to be more than what the ILL costs. Also ILL lanes are basically a 0 minute line with some wait time depending on how the attraction boards, so if you do that with Genie+ you can plan two rides in the same hour, ideally near each other.

  • If something is Virtual Queue and ILL, try for the 7am Virtual Queue. We didn’t get in for TRON, but did for Guardians of the Galaxy. If you do and the time to return is good, great. If you don’t and it’s something you really want to ride, ILL it.

  • Throughout the day the popular/new attractions would have absolutely absurd wait times (I saw 3 hours for Slinky Dog Dash at one point lolololol) but other rides and attractions were nearly forgotten, including genuinely fun ones like Big Thunder Mountain and Expedition Everest.

  • If your child says she is afraid of heights, Space Mountain is not a good first ride. We recovered but it took a fair amount of trust building after that.

  • A lot of the rides at Disney use glasses now for a 3D effect. They never seem to work as well as they should, and for someone who already has visual issues I don’t enjoy having to wear them. Flight of Passage was probably the biggest offender here, if you look straight ahead it looks great, if you don’t things get blurry and (at least to me) increase the amount of motion change you’re going to experience quite a bit. This is to say that if anyone is a little motion sick, some of the rides that don’t move much but use glasses might actually be worse than some of the ones that physically move a lot.

Lorelei making a sad face while wearing 3D glasses. Matches my feelings on the glasses.

Animal Kingdom Lodge

Animal Kingdom Lodge (AKL) offers rooms with two specific experiences, one with a savanna view and one without. The savanna view costs $$ more per night, so we skipped it. We ended up with a room that looked at animals anyway. They might not have been as close or there as often but it was cool and unsurprisingly a seven year old ends up blasé to the idea of giraffes out the back window quite quickly.

Giraffes from our balcony.

AKL is split into two “villages”, Jambo and Kidani, about a 10 minute walk apart. The buses to the parks stop at Kidani first. Wasn’t an issue getting a seat on the way in but did make the return trips a little longer. Staying at AKL means you’re taking a bus everywhere. Overall that wasn’t an issue, although getting the ride back from the park sometimes meant ~20 minutes of waiting.

Kidani has the better pool, although we spent plenty of time at Jambo’s as well. Jambo more food options and a more interesting lobby, and a bigger arcade and gift shop/store. I believe AKL is usually the cheapest of the “deluxe” resorts, which gives you some extra perks (that we mostly didn’t use), and I’d overall recommend it unless you specifically wanted to be closer to one of the parks.

The Parks

Experiences from worst to best.

Hollywood Studios

Real bummer because this was my favorite as a kid, and I thought the new Star Wars area would at least be cool even though we’re not big Star Wars fans, but the park had a lot of early morning outages and by the time we had finished lunch the wait times were outrageous. We didn’t do lightning lanes that day either and weren’t going to wait almost two hours for anything so we called it an early day and went to the pool instead. With Rock N’ Roller Coaster closed there’s not enough to soak up crowds here, and the overall park layout is the worst of all of them. On a positive note, we did get on Runaway Railway and that mixed screen and motion and animation style of ride is what Disney does best and is a lot of fun.

Magic Kingdom

With Splash Mountain being closed (a personal favorite) we focused on some of the classic dark rides hitting Pirates and Haunted Mansion twice each. Didn’t do TRON because our virtual queue position ended up being way after we were planning on staying, and Lorelei hated Space Mountain. Didn’t get to ride Seven Dwarfs Mine Train because it broke in the morning and then the wait time was over 1.5 hours the rest of the day. So overall just fine. We did get a visit from Captain Jack Sparrow while eating lunch, which prompted Lorelei to watch the first three Pirates movies while we were back in the hotel room.

Captain Jack Sparrow He couldn’t convince her to dip her chips in the slushie but he did inspire her to ride Pirates again and buy a cutlass and start talking like a pirate.

EPCOT

Did better planning with Lightning Lanes this day, and got a good spot on the Virtual Queue for Guardians of the Galaxy. An overall fun day but I forgot that this park is huge, and some rides (Frozen) had absurd wait times even with the Lightning Lane. I don’t get that one at all, I loved that ride when it was the Norway ride, it’s now the same ride but with a two hour standby time. I wish we had skipped it (or pushed the Lightning Lane out later) so we could have seen more of the World Showcase. If I had known how Hollywood Studios was going to go, or if we had another day in the parks, I would have done two days here to see everything.

Animal Kingdom

We saved this park for the last because I figured it would be the best, and our last park day would be a Monday so the crowds should be lower. Both things were true. Not only did we get to do every ride we wanted to do we managed to do some of them twice (Expedition Everest, Flight of Passage), and all three of us enjoyed pretty much everything. Well, Lorelei wouldn’t do Everest twice (she instead asked “how do people even survive that”) but Andrea and I did. We got caught in a rainstorm on Kali River Rapids late in the day and ended absolutely soaked but the storm cleared out a lot of visitors giving us some uncrowded time in the animal areas and short wait times post dinner.

Dinning

Experiences from worst to best.

The Mara

It’s the quick food option at Animal Kingdom Lodge so the expectations are low but they forgot items from our order every single time. Also the cold brew tastes like it’s made by pouring water over the left over grounds from the hot coffee batches, it’s literally undrinkable. I barely had coffee while we were at Disney so maybe it’s like that throughout the parks.

Boma

Buffet. Like every Disney hotel buffet way overpriced. We did it for breakfast, but dinner might have had a better selection.

Sci-Fi Dine-In Theatre

A place I thought was cool as a kid. Not bad per se, just not as interesting as I remembered it, and the food is quite basic. Also while the restaurant was over half empty we got some weird car setup where a solo dinner was behind us in our car. Definitely got the feeling in there that some of the reservation limits at the restaurants were from lack of staff not lack of seats.

Sanaa

Everything online said the Indian style bread service was good, they really sold it once you got there too. It was good! I love naan. The entrées were just ok though.

Skipper’s Canteen

Good food, decent theming. We were in the main dining area, the rooms off of that seemed to fit the ride theme a little more and be more interesting visually.

Yak and Yeti

Similar to the above. Theme might have been a bit better, food about the same. Owned by a restaurant group that is not Disney so the menu is 10x larger than a Disney restaurant.

Space 220

Great. The theme of going up into space was really well done. You’re not going to be convinced you are there, but you’ll at least forget you’re in Orlando for a bit. Food was excellent although you’re dealing with prix fixe so there no small / inexpensive meal here.

Conclusion

There’s an incredibly small window of overlap in both time and space where parents and children can have fun together, and for all of its downsides (cost, planning, crowds), it’s hard to beat Disney World. Besides all of the things noted above:

  • When researching how bad the buses were from AKL, I saw a comment that Americans love Disney World because it’s the only place in the country with functioning public transportation. This is… sadly true. Planning trips around a large city with a kid is much harder.
  • It’s their job, but (almost) everyone you interact with there is friendly and helpful. I’m generally positive about the overall kindness of strangers but it’s definitely much higher in the parks.
  • You’re never far from a bathroom, drinks, or food. Obviously the last two are mutually beneficial but again, you don’t have to plan around it.
  • The parks are set up to be accessible to everyone, which trickles down to benefits for everyone. I especially love that the pools are set up in a way to let even young kids pretty much go free. Most hotel pools have awful setups like additional exits from the pool area, or no floaties, or a randomly extremely deep end, but at Disney you can just drop them in and then go enjoy your drink.

Will we be back? Disney World these days feels like it was the place Yogi Berra was referencing when he said, “no one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded”, but I’m sure we’ve got a few more trips in us while it still seems like magic to one (or more!) of us.


  1. TNSTAAFL but their rates were reasonable and our driver was chill about the “20” minute stop.

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