The mere mention of the word “Disney” can set many travel aficionados’ teeth on edge, but I confess to being a Disney fan, and our family has made several trips over the years to the parks, and had a wonderful visit each time. I grew up approximately 45 minutes away from Disneyland in California, went for the first time just three months after it opened in 1955, and visited many, many other times with my family, with friends when I was a teenager, and with Brett and our son when he was a toddler. Brett and I have also visited Disney World with our son and the girls several times – it was often easier to find cheaper round-trip airfares to Orlando from Portland than to Los Angeles. And, Brett and I have been to Tokyo Disneyland as well, which was an interesting experience. It was Disney with many similar rides, etc. and yet it was still so different. We’ve never taken a Disney cruise, nor have we visited the Disney parks in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Paris, so I can’t (and won’t) speak to those experiences.
I personally don’t understand all the animosity towards the Disney parks. I’ve heard many complain that a day at a Disney park is too expensive (the price for a one-day ticket currently ranges from $99 to $119 per person at Walt Disney World, depending on the time of year or day of the visit, but goes down the more days you visit), and a week’s vacation has the potential to cost several thousands of dollars. The parks’ intense focus on all things Disney, and the gift shops at the end of every ride can seem excessive and cloying. The food is expensive. It costs to park your car, etc. The biggest complaint I’ve heard though is that it’s just all so . . . fake.
What seems to often be forgotten is that the Disney parks are first and foremost amusement parks. They are amusement parks taken to the highest level, and ones where it may take more than a day to experience all that is offered, but like any other park anywhere there are rides, attractions, shops, places to eat, and so forth. Those country pavilions in Epcot are just areas offering a glimpse of a country, and not intended to substitute for and actual visit. Of course they’re fake. They’re in an amusement park.
Park visitors, especially those who try to drop in for a day’s visit, are often disappointed by the experience, starting with the expense. Especially if it’s their first visit (and it’s hot), the long lines for rides can be disconcerting or exasperating. The cost of food for a family can be exhorbitant, or there’s no seating to be had at restaurants. Many leave feeling discouraged and full of animosity toward Disney, claiming it’s a rip-off, and that they’re never returning.
What’s forgotten is the high cost of actually operating a park on the level and size of the Disney ones, the cost of paying the friendly employees, the cost of keeping the parks sparkling clean, the cost of all that electricity (did you know though that Disney World burns most of its trash to help provide much of its own power?), of paying vendors, etc. Quality costs, and if nothing else, Disney provides quality. And lots and lots of people want to have that experience.
Here are some things we learned over time to ensure that even a one-day visit to any of the parks is fun and memorable;
- Do some research before you go!! I can’t emphasize this enough, even if you’re only planning to go for a day. There are whole guides devoted to visiting Disneyland or Disney World, and websites like AllEars.net or MouseSavers.com (among others) are full of good information and tips for how to get the most out of your visit. There’s a lot to see and do, and unless you’re planning to stay for longer than week, there’s no way to see it all, but with planning you can see and do more than you thought you could.
- If you’re planning to visit for more than a day (and you really should, if you’re going to Walt Disney World), use a Disney-specific travel agent to arrange your stay. You can book your own visit on the Disney websites, but there’s no charge for the Disney-specific agents’ services, and they will make sure your entire vacation is special. They can help get you reservations at a Disney resort without busting your budget, get reservations at the extremely popular character meals or high-end restaurants, as well as arranging other perks. We used Small World Vacations more than once – their service was superb. I highly recommend staying on resort property if you can – there are many, many benefits that include free transportation to and from the airport, free luggage transport, free delivery of items purchased in the parks to your room, and best of all, early admission and late stays at different parks each day. You also have a convenient location to return to during the day for breaks (especially nice if you’re visiting with small children).
- The portion sizes at the park counter-service restaurants are huge. We found that sharing three meals versus each person having their own provided more than enough food for our family of five, and saved us quite a bit of money. We always also brought in our own granola bars and bottled water to save on snacks (you’re allowed to bring in any food that does not require heating). We found that purchasing the meal plans at Disney World – available if you’re staying at a Disney hotel – also saved us quite a bit, and allowed us to eat at some places we might not have been able to enjoy otherwise (Tip: dinner on the outside patio at the British pub in Epcot was the best place to be for the evening firework show). There are healthy choices available at almost all restaurants, whether sit-down or counter service.
- Become familiar with how fast passes work, and have a plan to get them as soon as you enter the park in the morning. If you are traveling with with teenagers or other adults, you can assign each person to a particular ride for passes, and then reconnect afterwards to get started on your day.
- If you can’t get passes, take advantage of single rider lanes if they’re available – they move more quickly than the regular line. We used this feature as much as possible when the girls were older, but they were still almost always seated in pairs, and we always had a designated meeting spot outside for when everyone finished the ride. One time YaYu had to sit alone with another family, but agreed to go after the family promised us they would watch over her. They did, and got her safely to our meeting spot.
- Be ready to go early in the morning, when the parks open. It takes a while for the crowds to build, but if you can be there when the parks open, and head straight toward your favorite ride(s) you’ll practically have the ride to yourself, sometimes two or three times, before the line begins to build.
- The best Disney souvenirs are your own photos. Neither Brett nor I care for Disney-branded items, so we never really bought anything more than maybe a sweatshirt for the girls, but our solution for all the tempting gift shops was to give each child their own money at the beginning of the visit – they could spend it however they wished, on whatever they wished, but when it was gone, it was gone. They were not allowed to ask us to buy them anything. It was amazing how less tempting all those items in the shops became when they had to spend their “own” money.
None of us here at Casa Aloha has a desire to go to any of the Disney parks any more – that itch has been scratched. However, we had a more than wonderful time on each the trips we made to both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, made memories that we still talk about now, and Brett and I feel the expense was well worth it, and my parents apparently did as well. If I had it to do over, I’d still take each of those vacations again – they were magical, for me when I was young, and for our own kids. My most precious Disney memory is of five year-old YaYu crying from happiness as we waited for the bus to take us to the airport to go home. She had been with our family, and home in the United States, for less than a year, and her early years in the orphanage had not allowed her to imagine that there was a place in the world that was so amazing and so much fun.
In my opinion, the key to enjoying and getting the most from any visit to a Disney park is remembering that it’s Disney, and that you’re visiting a very popular, high-end amusement park. If you can keep this in mind, and prepare yourself before you go, you won’t be disappointed, and you might be able to enjoy some of the fabulous features and special effects to be found throughout the parks. However, if you don’t like amusement parks, don’t like crowds, and haven’t prepared yourself for the expense or the experience, then you’ll probably end up very disappointed.
How do you feel about visiting the Disney Parks?