Disney is magic. It was when I was 4, and it still is. Starting with the hotel, which was exceptionally wonderful. We opted to stay in the park, which gave us access to the excellent bus system and allowed us to enjoy Extra Magic Hours (EMH) in the parks (each day of the week a different park either opens early or extra late for those staying in the park hotels). I know most travel guides say avoid going to parks for EMH's; however, this time of year the parks were sufficiently empty so as to make even the largest crowds a breeze, but I digress...
We stayed at the All Star Music Resort, a very budget-friendly option, and let me tell you, I was worried about what I would find after reading some bad (older) reviews. But now, what's this? A completely clean, tastefully decorated suite, complete with kitchenette, 3 pull out beds for the kids, and a SEPARATE BEDROOM for the adults?? Yep, that's right. Ryan and I were given a magical door which shut out the children and allowed for privacy and the ability to sit up and relax after the kids went down rather than having (as I did in past hotel stays) to huddle in the restroom with the light on, reading a book, while Ryan goes out for a beer wherever until 10ish when we hit the sack. This room was a complete blessing for our family and for my personal sanity. I might also mention the pool was very nice and the cafeteria offered a really nice selection of options, albeit marked up to ridiculous prices (as with all Disney food... picture shelling out $10.50 for three modest Popsicles).
Which brings me to the food. Ryan and I are foodies, so a good chunk of our Disney budget was spent on food. We opted not to try the dining plan, as Internet research seemed to indicate we probably wouldn't save that much, if anything, with a plan. The receipts will tell in time, but we haven't touched that yet. Our fave meals: the buffet at Boma in Animal Kingdom Lodge (South African Fare... everyone in our party of 13 seemed to really enjoy it), the Biergarten in Epcot (excellent German buffet with a fun show to boot), and dinner for two outside the main resort area in the Dolphin Hotel at Bluezoo, which offered absolutely fabulous gourmet fare for a very hefty price tag (totally worth it!). We carried our own snacks in the park (granola and almonds) and carried refillable water bottles to save a bit of $$ on snacking and drinks, and ate breakfast in our room after a quick trip to the (also grossly overpriced) local Winn Dixie for groceries. For the kids meals in the park, I would give a grade of "B". Offerings were typically the same junk-foody menus of pizza, hot dogs, burgers, and PB & J; however, I was pleasantly surprised to see that instead of fries and chips, kids were given many options, including veggies (usually carrot sticks), grapes, yogurt (granted, the crazy-sugary kind), etc. And at the sit down restaurants, they offered some variations on the theme for kids, allowing for the occasional nutrient to reach my childrens' gut. Admittedly, our food choices did not help as the germs completed their tour-de-force through our family's systems, I know. But again, a huge chunk of our vacation was planned around the food. And I will say, their care for allergy and food sensitivities was AMAZING. If your child has a food allergy, a chef will personally lead you thru the menu or walk you thru the buffet, and many places offer excellent choices for the gluten-free/dairy free kid. A friend of mine noted that her son had his first chicken fingers in Disney, with the reaction of "What is this magical stuff you gave me, Mommy?" since he had never been able to have a chicken strip before that due to severe Celiac's Disease. The kids fave meals: T-Rex in Downtown Disney (the most awesome setting full of robotic dinosaurs in every corner), and the Rainforest Cafe, in Animal Kingdom. We also attended the luau at the Polynesian Resort... and while the show was really exceptional, I would not say the food lived up to the ridiculous price tag (over $300 for our party of 7 for uninspired bbq ribs, bbq chicken, fried rice, and pinapple flavored everything).
And then there were the parks. Oh, there just isn't enough time or words to describe all the fun and magic. My first suggestion: if you have the ability, please go in off-peak season. I scoured the Internet for planning tips to make park planning simpler, since every blog I read seemed to agree that there are certain strategies needed in order to avoid long waits at the park, like using "fast passes" and hitting the really popular rides early to obtain fast passes for shorter wait times later in the day. A "fast pass" is a ticket you can obtain at a booth near many of the popular rides which allows the ticket-holder to come back at a later hour (specified on the ticket, i.e. between 1:05 and 2:05)... if you come back in that window of time, you walk thru a fast pass entrance which provides for a much more minimal wait time (like 5-7 minutes instead of 40+ minutes).
I had it all planned out to a science...at 9 am we hit the park at opening, then proceed to rides x and y for fast-passes on the way to ride z for the short morning line. Suffice it to say, though, thankfully all my planning was wasted because the crowds were fantastically, mercifully, low. We never had to wait for more than 15 minutes on any ride in any park, save 2. One was the "Greet the Princesses" experience in the Magic Kingdom (where the kids get to meet, talk with, and get a picture with their favorite princesses... a huge hit right near the entrance to the MK on main street- the girls loved it, but for some reason, at least at first, Caleb found Rapunzel and her peers TERRIFYING. I have no idea why. Sigh.). We waited 35 minutes at the Princess Greeting because we missed our fast-pass window (and, yes, they now strictly enforce the time window on your fast-passes). The second line we waited a bit more was the Toy Story Mania ride in Hollywood Studios. We got to the park at 9 (it opened at 8), and went straight there as per our travel guide advice that this ride fills fast and "get a fast-pass ASAP". When we got to the line at 9:05, there was a 70 minute wait time. When we got to the line for our fast-pass time window, we still waited 20 minutes; however, it was totally worth it as the main line had an 130 min wait time. Please let me assure you, this was one of the best rides in the parks and totally worth driving my family at breakneck speed to the fast-pass machine at 9 a.m. Every person in our party of 7 agreed on it :) Other can't miss rides that were loved in the parks:
I'm sure the Dumbo ride has a kid-crack dispenser somewhere because my kids wanted to ride it over and over. Never mind that there are 14 other variations on the same ride scattered everywhere throughout the parks... Dumbo was their fave hands-down. In addition, they loved the motorway, ALL the rides in Futureworld, esp. the Laugh Factory and Stitch's Escape (Caleb now ADORES Stitch and is obsessed with his Stitch stuffed animal he got as a souvenir), Peter Pan, Small World, and the newest rides in Fantasyland: "The Little Mermaid" and "Belle's Enchanted Storytime" (Awesome! They got to act out the Beauty and the Beast story WITH BELLE!).
Hands down, the family favorite was "Soarin'" followed by the Living Seas Rides and Aquariums (Nemo and "Turtle Talk with Crush"). Ryan and I loved strolling around the World Showcase, and I thought the kids would love it, but the day we went it was blazing hot and they just couldn't enjoy it quite as much as the more exciting parks because the poor dears were too wilted to care. They enjoyed themselves still at both parts of Epcot, but I will say the heat and lesser number of "kid-crack" rides made Epcot the least appealing for the kids. Still tons of fun, though.
My personal fave park from the week. I loved the more organic settings, the beauty everywhere you look, and, of course, the awesome animals. The gorillas alone moved me to tears. But there are also TONS of fun rides, as well as a petting zoo at the end of a train ride (I'm pretty sure the littles were in ecstasy for those, while the rest of us held our noses in musty-goaty-disgust). Ryan and Dad loved Expedition Everest, a smallish roller coaster that was too scary for our kids, and Dinosaur (also too scary for small children and people who have motion sickness, they reported), while the kids LOVED Dinoland USA. They could have stayed there another day and been thrilled, with it's dino-dig area and playground structures, Triceratops ride, mini roller coaster, and restaurants that give out sand pails with kids meals (you would have thought they were given pure gold to eat... my advice, if you want your kid to be happy, serve meals in a .50 cent cheapo sand pail, lol.). But by far, the shows beat it all. You must must MUST see their Lion King and Nemo live shows. Lion King, in particular, had us all bug-eyed, goofily-grinning in awe of the sights and songs. Really, don't miss it.
I'd love to go on and on, but really my poor Mommy brain just can recall all the fun perfectly after a 3 day lag since returning. However, I will share a few fun photos; a preview since we have not fully edited all our photos for posting yet. I loved the entire time, but I'm gonna need a good 5 year break before going again in order to rest and recuperate, lol. Thanks Mom and Dad for joining us, and sorry for running you two ragged, but we loved every minute with you! :)
p.s. One more hint: Buy souvenirs before leaving your home to go to the parks. Those Mickey ears pictured above were purchased at Walmart for $5 and saved us so much trouble, money, and whining. We also bought the kids sticker activity books, neon glowsticks for the fireworks show, and a couple of Disney-themed Leapster games at the $5 store beforehand, making it easy to say "yes" when they asked for fun stuff to take home from their vacation. Also, the princess dresses pictured are 20% cheaper here at our Disney store than they are in the parks. :)