Disney World: The Kids' Choice

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2004

"We've got a bear in a floppy hat at 1 o'clock!" I cry, scrambling the calm of our Frontierland stroll.

A seven-foot-tall grizzly in hillbilly duds has just appeared outside the Country Bear Jamboree, and the milling multitudes are suddenly electrified. No article of clothing in the world, with the possible exception of an orange Home Depot vest, is more of an instant crowd magnet than a Disney character costume. Sending an OshKosh-wearing bear named Liver Lips into the streets is like tossing a pig carcass into a pool of piranhas.

But we know what to do. My wife, Ann, sprints toward the bear to hold a place in the quickly lengthening line for pictures. Isabel, 7, scrabbles through our backpack full of crushed snacks and leaky juice boxes until she pulls out her autograph book. I patrol the perimeter with Tyrie, 5, in the double stroller.

And just in time, too, as a charging dad in a Tennessee Vols shirt towing five (five!) kids threatens to cut us off. It's but the work of an instant to adopt a vacuous stare and wander carelessly with my stroller into their path. Ann nabs a spot near the front of the line, the kids rendezvous and get their grip-and-grin with Liver Lips, and we're back on the move. Elapsed time: 3 minutes 48 seconds.

Not bad. Certainly much better than the agonizing 23 minutes we spent in line for Pinocchio on our first day. And it leaves us, let's see, 93 seconds for unprogrammed shopping before we return to our master schedule, which calls for one more kid ride (The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh) and one more grownup ride (Hall of Presidents) before we retreat to the hotel pool for our midday regroup. Plus, we'll need to recharge the walkie-talkies prior to our evening sortie.

Oh, what have we become? What force in the universe could have turned our normally schedule-phobic family of loosey-goosey, plan-as-we-go travelers into a Green Beret unit in flip-flops? Walt Disney World, what else.

Of all the family vacation plans that get negotiated around a kitchen table, the most inevitable one is the pilgrimage to Disney World. Even reluctant, theme-park-hating parents feel the pressure to head Orlando way, anything to avoid hearing "You never even took me to Disney World" through the plexiglass of some future prison visitation room. But it's a rite of family passage that can be famously wrenching, especially to grownups who must ride herd on kids driven berserk by anticipation, stimulation, exhaustion and a diet of Popsicles and soda -- all in crowds that would make a New Delhi traffic cop blanch. Don't get me wrong, there is plenty in Disney World to entertain adults. But to keep the day from dissolving entirely into a cranky whirl of hour-long lines for pre-K rides, it takes a little tactical thinking.

Here then, are five Parental Commando Tips every Disney-bound grownup should know.

1. Plan, Plan, Plan

Disney World is so vast, so crowded and so overloaded with options and obstacles that families walking through the gates for the first time commonly react with . . . paralysis. Planning-on-the-fly here is like trying to decide where to have dinner a hundred times a day. As a group!

Here's how to do it wrong: On Day One, after settling into our hotel, we blithely headed over to the main park at midday to find -- surprise! -- an epic mob. The spiky, idealized turrets of Cinderella Castle rose out of a churning surf of vacationers in sun hats and fake ears; it was like trying to walk the National Mall during the Million Mouse March. We just shuffled along with the current for a while, eddying through Disney's prom-themed subdivisions: Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Adventureland. We dithered and drifted past the daunting 90-minute wait for Mickey's PhilharMagic, past the 30-yard-long lines for roasted turkey legs and lemonade slushies, right on by Space Mountain, where Tyrie could walk under the minimum height bar without ruffling her hair. Obviously, whatever we did was going to take a long time.

Finally, we committed to the Haunted Mansion, a 50-minute wait for an eight-minute ride through the cobwebbed, sweetly spooky Victorian Disney classic. The grownups adored it; the kids were terrified. (We should have introduced them to "animatronics" with something a little cheerier.) In all, after a slow dinner at a teeming Tomorrowland burger stand, we spent four hours during our first visit and managed to get into exactly two attractions.

Here's how to do it right (We still refer to this day as the Glorious 8th of April): The park opens at 8 a.m. -- we're through the turnstiles by 8:10. Ann takes the girls to the stroller rental office (we found pushing the two of them around saves them energy and us time). Meanwhile, I jog, literally, through the all-but-empty streets to Splash Mountain, where I insert our four tickets in the Fastpass machine, a computerized crowd-control marvel that gives us an appointed one-hour window later in the morning to come back and ride Splash Mountain without waiting in line. (The most popular rides are on this network; the catch is that you can only reserve one ride at a time -- and during peak hours, your appointed time might be four or five hours in the future.)

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