Parents contemplating a first-time visit to Disney World in central Florida have every reason to think they should take along a Marine Corps survival manual -- considering other parents' accounts of such pilgrimages. The tales of long lines and parental burnout are legion.
But an event-crammed five-day visit with a 6-year-old in tow during March (spring break and Christmas season are the two busiest periods of the year) indicates that common sense, preparation and adult stamina are the only requirements for ensuring an enjoyable, memorable visit for everyone.
Based on experience and hindsight, and in the interest of making the visit fun -- instead of fatiguing -- for all ages, here's a list of time-saving do's and don'ts:
Don't arrive in Orlando without having done your homework. Get a copy of "Steve Birnbaum Brings You the Best of Walt Disney World," the "official" guidebook approved by the Disney organization, as well as the just-published "Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World." Read them both through to the point where you think you know as much about the place as the people who run it.
The first book provides incredible detail on every ride and exhibit, and more. The second puts it all into perspective -- with objective criticism when appropriate -- and helps you plot your strategy for approaching the park before you even leave home.
Do discuss with your children what they want to see before you leave. This can be based on what they've heard from friends as well as sharing (and anticipating) what's described in the books. It also gives you a chance to familiarize yourself with the maps and set your priorities before you walk in the gate. But remember: One child's favorite ride can be another's harrowing experience, so don't let them dictate your first-day traffic flow. Keep it flexible.
Don't try to take in Disney World in a single day. No matter what the age of the children, the Magic Kingdom -- with its six different areas of amusement rides -- requires more than a day in itself, crowds or no crowds. And Epcot Center -- twice as big and generally of more interest to older children and parents, with its educational exhibits -- is worthy of more time than most visitors allot. (Despite what you may have heard, at least one Mickey Mouse-oriented 6-year-old loved Epcot. A Disney World rule: Ignore accepted wisdom.)
Do commit your family to three-, four- or five-day World Passport tickets. They permit you to go back and forth between the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. They need not be used on consecutive days, thus affording you more flexibility to come and go as your stamina (or fatigue) dictates. (One-day passes -- for either the Magic Kingdom or Epcot but not both -- cost $24.50 for adults, $19.50 for children ages 3-12. Three-day passes, which include both parks, are $61 for adults, $49 for children. Four-day passes are $71 for adults, $57 for children. Five-day passes are $81 for adults, $65 for children.)
Don't expect to see all you want on your first day. It's physically impossible considering the number of attractions. And you're supposed to be on vacation, not competing in a marathon. Pace yourself.
Do decide what the three or four most favored attractions are, and head for them the minute you go through the gate. Having studied the map beforehand, you should already have established a counter-flow strategy so that you won't be wasting time criss-crossing from one section to another. You'll need the time saved later on.
Don't waste valuable time in restaurants. After all, this is a trip to one of the world's outstanding amusement parks -- not a tour of France's four-star kitchens. Your mealtimes should be secondary to taking in as much of Disney World as you can.
The best plan is to have a hearty early breakfast and grab a fast-food lunch on the run. Depending on your time and financial commitment, have a more relaxed dinner at one of the Disney World restaurants, at the hotel or at any one of what seem to be hundreds of fast-food outlets and franchise restaurants huddled as close to Disney World as legally allowed. Dinnertime is also the perfect time to review the day's events and plot the next day's assault.
Do plan on getting to the park earlier than anyone else. This probably will be the single most important factor in determining whether you will be able to see what you want, when you want, without resorting to track shoes. (Speaking of shoes, make sure they're comfortable.)
Don't plan on spending all your dawn-to-dusk time at Disney World. Concentrated spurts are a better strategy than treating the visit as an endurance contest. Kids can tire quickly, even at Disney World, and it can be very warm in the midday lines. It's best to take a midday break (when the lines are the longest) and go back to the hotel for a swim or or a short nap, returning to Disney World at dinnertime or afterward. You'll find the kids will welcome the intermission, and of course you will. And it gives you additional unhurried family time to weigh the pros and cons of the attractions, rides and exhibits, and to revise your priorities. Remember: pace yourself.
Do plan on visiting other nearby attractions such as Sea World and even one of the many alligator farms. These provide a contrast to the crowds at Disney World and a welcome change of pace.
Don't miss Mickey's Street Party in the Magic Kingdom -- if your children are young enough -- held every day at 3 p.m. on Main Street, U.S.A. It's best to claim a curbside spot by 2 p.m. You can eat a Mickey Mouse ice cream bar and watch everyone else wish they'd grabbed your spot.
Do plan to be at the Magic Kingdom for either the 9 p.m. or 11 p.m. Main Street Electrical Parade, held every day, even if the youngest person in your family is 86. It's impossible to exaggerate its electrifying fairy-tale effect; the memory lingers long after you've returned to reality.
Don't take food into Disney World. First, they don't allow it. Second, you don't want to tote more than you have to. If you've prepared well, you can (depending on timing and your pocketbook) eat at one of the restaurants, or have a fast burger, hot dog or pizza at one of the many concessions before or after the prime-time crush. That's another reason for the big breakfast.
Do take along some small candies, gum and cookies to break the monotony for your restless young ones standing in line. Have some yourself -- you'll need the energy boost.
Don't forget to stop by City Hall immediately after entering the Magic Kingdom for up-to-date information on that day's special events and entertainment spectaculars. You'll be a step ahead of the crowd. Most visitors aren't even aware such facts are available.
Do make dinner reservations at Epcot the minute you enter the front gate, if you decide to eat there. Preferred same-day seatings often are booked solid within an hour after the park opens. (Make reservations at Earth Station just inside the gate.)
Is it worth all the advance planning and the expense? Just ask our 6-year-old or any other kid who's planted a kiss on Mickey in front of Cinderella's castle. It's magic.