GETTING THERE: Several carriers fly nonstop from D.C. to Orlando, including US Airways (currently quoting a round-trip fare from Reagan National of $176), AirTran (from BWI, $182) and United (Dulles, $182). We took advantage of an option uniquely available to Washington- ians: Amtrak's Auto Train offers daily overnight trips for you and your car from Lorton, Va., to Sanford, Fla., about 30 miles north of Orlando. The $120 one-way coach fare for adults ($60 for children) includes dinner and breakfast. The one-way fare for autos is $140; for vans and SUVs, $228. We loved arriving fed and refreshed at 9 a.m. the next morning. Info: 800-872- 7245, www.amtrak.com. To save money and visit family in Savannah, Ga., we returned by car: 13 hours/850 miles split over two days.
Disney World is a package magnet, with good deals to be had. Without much effort, Hotwire.com coughed up a deal for air from BWI and four nights in the Walt Disney World Dolphin in mid-June for $562. Do a little digging.
WHERE TO STAY: There are some unmistakable advantages to staying in one of the 20-plus resorts within the borders of Disney World: The bus/boat/monorail transportation systems make it easy to duck out of the park for a midday break; it's nice to park the car (or not bother renting one) for the length of your stay; and resort guests have a crack at early opening times in the parks on certain days.
The range of choices is wide, from the low-end "value resorts" (All-Star Sports Resort, the Pop Century Resort) with rack rates starting at $77 a night, to the "moderate resorts" (Caribbean Beach, Coronado Springs) starting at $133, to the plusher "deluxe resorts" (Animal Kingdom Lodge, the Polynesian) starting at $199. Info: 407-939-6244, www.disneyworld.com. Outside the park, Orlando has a massive -- and cut-throat -- hotel market. The Orlando Visitors Bureau (see below) is hugely helpful in sorting through the choices and bagging good packages, discount tickets, etc.
DOING THE PARK: Disney is big. It is possible to do the main theme park, the Magic Kingdom, in one day, but you'll be moving pretty fast and will just get a sampling. (Nothing wrong with that, though. For some people, a sampling is just right.) You'll need several days to more thoroughly experience that park and its satellites: Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Disney-MGM Studios, not to mention the various water parks, miniature golf courses, knock-off French Quarters, boardwalks, etc. We worked for four days and ended up skipping the movie park altogether. (Of course, we took few hours off every afternoon for pool time during the most crowded hours.)
Single-day admissions are $54.75 ($43.75 for kids 3 to 9), but are only good for one park at a time. The most flexible way to divide your time, if you'll be there at least four days, is to buy Disney's Park Hopper pass, which allows you to go into any or all of the parks on any given day. They cost $219 at the gate for 10 and older, $176 for kids 3 to 9 ($202 and $162 if purchased in advance via the Web site or other discount locations).
INFORMATION: Finding ways to beat the crowds and bag bargains at Disney World is a passion/sport/ full-time job for a lot of people. But you don't have to be a fanatic to benefit from their expertise; they love to share. The most useful guidebook I found was the "Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World" (Wiley Publishers, $18), by Bob Sehlinger. In addition to detailed reviews of darned near every hot dog cart in the Magic Kingdom, this book offers the ultimate minute-by-minute battle plan for maximizing your time and money at Disney World. On the Web, a similar resource, with links to packages at Disney properties worldwide, is www.mousesavers.com.
For more info: Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 407-363-5872, www.orlandoinfo.com.
-- Steve Hendrix