How to Survive the Happiest Place on Earth
And don't forget Universal Studios while you're in the area.
To say that Disney has been in the news quite frequently lately would be an understatement. This isn’t about that. Because given my family’s recent experience, people are still flocking to Disney World. Perhaps you, too, are planning a trip to the park. Maybe you’re just thinking about planning a trip. If so, this is for you.
Because going to Disney World is not akin to deciding to take the family to the lake for the weekend. No, Disney World is a mission, one that requires intense logistical planning, a few palates of cash, and roughly the same amount of organization as sending a man to the moon. As one seasoned Disney dad I struck up a conversation with told me, “This isn’t about fun. This is work.”
For us, the work started when my wife came home and told me she’d had a meeting with a friend and former co-worker who moonlights as a Disney travel agent. She’d put down the deposit. We were going to Disney World. I groused, but begrudgingly accepted that it’s one of those trips that kids should get at least once in their lives. I also said a small prayer that we wouldn’t become Disney people, organizing all our vacations and free time around the park.
Fast forward roughly a year and the trip was upon us. Rather than flying, we decided to embark on the great American roadtrip, albeit not of the actual variety as we weren’t going to stop and see sights along the way. There was no Dodge City, no Grand Canyon. Sure, flying would have been easier, but buying plane tickets for a family of five made loading up the Wagon Queen Family Truckster a more attractive option.
We set out on a Friday and arrived on Saturday evening. After dropping most of the family at the resort, the oldest and I made our first trip to Publix, which is the first thing I recommend doing if you’re visiting. Even if you fly, get an Uber and go to Publix. Buy drinks, cases of water, booze, snacks, and, most important for parents of younger kids, Mickey Mouse ears. Or Minnie ears. Sure, you could get the official ones inside the park, but those will set you back $30. The ones at Publix cost $6, roughly what a 20 oz. of Diet Coke will cost you inside the compound.
For Disney World is a compound. Once you’re on the inside, you’re on the inside. As David Marcus put it, “To call Disney World a controlled environment is insufficient. Nuclear power plants, or top secret military labs, are controlled environments. This is something more.”
And once you’re on the inside, you can’t just pop out to the store or restaurant without leaving, which you are free to do, you just have to retrieve your car. For this, you have two options: you can hike out to the parking lot, drive away, return, and try to find a new spot or you can have the valet bring you your car so you can drive away. Remember the money you just saved by going to Publix? Put this toward the valet option, which adds $7 per day to the cost of parking.
But what about being on the inside? Well, there are strategies to employ there, too. For starters, prepare to spend money. Prepare to spend a lot of money. Also prepare to spend a lot of time standing in line. The trip you took as a child is a thing of the past. Waiting maybe 30 minutes to hop on Space Mountain, which you did with your mom back in 1988, now costs an additional $15 per person per day. You could brave the regular line, which is now much longer, but that will greatly limit the number of rides you get to go on before you wear out and retreat to your resort.
Granted, there are limits on the number of times per day you can use the Lightning Lane and it’s not available for all the rides, but trust me, it’s worth it. Time is of the essence on the inside and though an additional $15 per person, plus tax, ain’t nothing, we’re talking opportunity costs here.
You also need structure your daily schedule around these. As there are limits on use, you’ll have to map out what you’re going to do. Lightning Lane for Star Wars, then stand in line for one of the others, then Lightning Lane for Space mountain, then a $12 slice of pizza. (As an aside, I’d recommend skipping pretty much all of the virtual rides as they are forgettable, though your mileage may vary as one of my favorite things was the Kilimanjaro Safari.)
Take lots of pictures while doing this, eat too much overpriced food, drink overpriced drinks, laugh with your kids, make them ride It’s a Small World, pack your stuff, have the valet retrieve your car, and head into your Universal Studios resort. Run by Publix again, first, if your supplies are diminished.
Universal is a little nicer than Disney World at this point, most likely because it’s newer. It’s also a closed environment, replete with vastly overpriced offerings that would make a vendor at a ball game blush. But Universal doesn’t do Lightning Lane, instead opting for the vastly superior Express Lane, which is not just a difference of terminology. It’s not available for all rides. For Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure or the Velocicoaster you’ll just have to wait in line, but the shrieks of terror emanated by your children make the lines much more tolerable.
But for offerings like the Incredible Hulk Coaster and the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, you can pretty much just walk up and get on. We rode the Hulk twice in the course of maybe 30 minutes thanks to the express pass. The lines for the two with no Express Lane took us roughly 2 hours each. (Hurry up and wait is the unofficial slogan for both Disney World and Universal.)
When it comes to individual experiences inside each of the parks, you’ll have to pick and choose based on your preferences unless you want to spend a few weeks there. Epcot has the best food, though remember that no one goes to Disney for the culinary experience. Magic Kingdom has the most princesses. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter has Butterbeer, which is something best left to the imagination.
Most important, though, remember that while you’re burning through cash faster than a SpaceX rocket burns through fuel, the important part is the memories, which is why you’ve got to stand in line for It’s a Small World. Don’t waste a Lightning Lane on it. It’s not a quick line, but it’s not that slow and it’s definitely not worth the additional spending.
But you absolutely have to hop on those little boats, though, because that ride is a throwback, one that harkens to the early days of the park and Walt Disney’s vision. Alas, it’s not been well maintained over the years, which is odd for Disney, and not all of the animatronics still move properly or even blink, instead staring at you with their cold robot eyes. There are no bursts of acceleration nor heart-stopping plummets. Instead, it’s a look at the wonder Disney saw in the future, the beauty of all people around the world, and the severe technological limitations of the time in which it was built, which makes it more than a bit discomfiting in 2022.
Toward the end of our journey around the small world, the oldest said, “This is nightmare fuel!” And with that, even though our trip wasn’t over, I knew my small prayer had been answered and we were not destined to become Disney people, which is great because I’m pretty sure a trip to Europe would be cheaper. For while it was a successful trip, as Walt himself said, “I do not like to repeat successes, I like to go on to other things.”
May your experience be similar.