"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.)
The walkie-talkie crackles with the news that Ann has secured the stroller and will be at our meeting point -- the Pirates of the Caribbean -- in two minutes. As I set off, the early sun slants prettily through the big live oak at Liberty Square, and there's still a scrap of morning fog over the waters of Tom Sawyer Island. I pause to appreciate how pleasant it can be here before the masses assemble.
At the entrance to Pirates, we experience the Joy That Passeth All Understanding: a ride at Disney World with absolutely no line. We trot through the empty maze and step right into a boat. This time the kids are more prepared for the unique experience of a Disney ride, and they groove right along to the happy pillaging of a West Indian port town. (Ann and I notice a few PC updates from our childhood visits -- the women now chase the pirates, for some reason, and during the auctioning of hostages, the rascals seem to be offering bids for the lady's "ribbons," not her person. Yeah, right.) But my favorite robot buccaneer is still getting drunk with that robot pig, and that robot dog still holds the keys just out of reach of the beckoning jailbirds. We're all more than satisfied.
Outside, The Plan calls for us to step across to the Enchanted Tiki Room. Again, no waiting. (This ride has also been updated, with less fortunate results. The old Tiki Room was about camp and charm; the new one -- with new characters, a caustic story line and a hip-hop rendition of "Let's All Sing Like the Birdies Sing" -- is technically advanced but stylistically damaged.) And then it's straight to the Jungle Cruise, usually good for an hour-long line. But now, aboard we go after 10 minutes.
With hundreds of people a minute pouring through the gates, the streets are finally getting a little fuller (things really start to clot up by 11 a.m. or so). But never mind, because it's our reserved time to go ride Splash Mountain anyway. Zip, we slip right past the 30-minute standees and are shown directly to our log. What joy! (Getting to the front of the line, I mean. The ride is nice, too.)
Can this be happening? We've been here 90 minutes and ridden four major rides. With a sort of stunned triumphalism, we slow down, mosey up and down the Swiss Family Treehouse, buy goofy crap at still-uncrowded shops (you know those iron keys the Pirates dog has in its mouth? There's now a set hanging in our kitchen) and eat a relaxed breakfast at the bakery on Main Street. By the time things are approaching gridlock shortly after noon, we head for the pool, having bagged our perfect day.
2. Don't Plan So Much
All right, already. Obviously, the benefits of a little holiday discipline are abundant, but with young children in the squad, don't get carried away. Sometimes we pushed (okay, force-marched) the kids for their own benefit. ("Noooooooo!" is how Isabel greeted the day on the mornings I peeled her from her bed like Velcro at 7 a.m., after having laid her down, still dressed, at 11 the night before. But still I carried her, limp and protesting, straight out of the hotel to the Disney bus. Within a few minutes, she was up and delighted with our early start.)
But just as often, we let ourselves be sidetracked by worthy diversions. We never did make it to Mickey's PhilharMagic, but we did line up for every Disney character that popped up in our path, and the girls' scribble-filled autograph book is their most-prized totem of the trip. And as the week filled, we ended up jettisoning Disney's MGM Studios altogether. But we enjoyed Epcot so much, we spontaneously added a third evening visit.
The prime source of our regimented approach was "The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World" (Wiley Publishing), a frank, exhaustive and irreverent tour manual and one of the most genuinely informative guidebooks I've ever used. But it is, well, a wee bit zealous. It would be easier to complete a NASA astronaut training course than stick to all of this book's maneuvers. (For example, within the five pages it devotes to booking a breakfast table in Cinderella Castle -- where Disney characters join you over pancakes -- it describes how to use an online atomic clock to calibrate your phone calls to the reservations line.) We didn't arrive at the park 50 minutes before it opened, as the book demands, or time every movement to the second. But we did find the underlying principles -- go early, go with a plan -- invaluable.
3. A Little Yin, a Little Yang
Epcot is delightful for grownups, especially the World Showcase. We had Moroccan food, saw a street performance by some young Chinese acrobats, scarfed a big beery meal in the German Biergarten Restaurant. The kids? They were entranced by the acrobats, unimpressed with Moroccan food and neutral on the Oompah band. But since we spent our mornings on more kid-oriented things in the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom, they went along willingly with our middle-aged evening program. (And we did make a point one night to catch the grand evening parade in the Magic Kingdom.)
Ditto for rides in the parks. Hey, one trip through "It's a Small World" is worth a whooole lotta turns on the Carousel of Progress, right? Oscillating between kid stuff and our stuff throughout the day kept everybody happy.
4. Let Disney Be Your Friend
Of course, there are some rides you shouldn't take kids on, even if it is your turn. ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter Space Mountain? Not with our 5-year-old, thank you very much. But with an informal Disney program called Switchoff, two parents of little kids can still get their kicks on the scariest rides without having to wait twice. It works like this: When you get to the ride's entrance, tell a staff member you want to do a switchoff. One adult goes ahead, the other takes the too-small kids to wait at a designated spot, probably near the ride's exit. When the first rider finishes, they meet up, hand off the kids and the second grownup gets to go to the front of the line.
In that way, Ann and I both managed to ride Epcot's very intense Mission: SPACE, a realistic rocket simulator plastered with warnings to the squeamish. Tyrie didn't even make the height requirement. Isabel was tall enough but didn't like the constant overtures to anyone with doubts to LEAVE NOW! We gave her a choice but pressed her to ride, our instincts being that she would emerge loving it. She rode with me, and -- phew! -- did love it. In retrospect, at least.
Switchoffs are one crucial Disney timesaver. Others include Fastpass, the computerized ride reservations system, and the "Extra Magic Hours," which on certain days allows people staying in Disney resorts to go into the parks one hour earlier than other guests. We visited Animal Kingdom on a magic hour day. The tiny early crowd, combined with our radio-controlled, rapid-response strategies, meant that we had ridden all of the headliner rides and seen the world's coolest 3-D bug movie well before breakfast. By the time the hordes flowed in, we were ready for our own magic hour -- that one by the hotel pool.
5. Stay Close, Bail Out,
Have a Drink
Finally, here is the ultimate recipe for remaining a happy grownup in Disney World: rum and chlorine. The touchstone of our daily routine was to bail out of the theme parks just after lunch, the most crowded stretch of the day. We swam, we swilled, we positively swooned in the relaxing Florida sun, steadily recharging for an evening return to the action. You can do that at any number of Orlando hotels, but it's sure easier at one of the more than 20 resorts within Disney's endless boundaries. (We stayed at the Dolphin Hotel, a sleek pastel tower just a boat ride away from Epcot and a bus ride from the Magic Kingdom. Others, like the Polynesian or the Grand Floridian, are on the monorail line, putting them in prime in-and-out territory.)
On our last full day, Ann and I set our umbrella drinks down long enough to take a dip in the biggest of the Dolphin's five pools. As the girls dogpaddled about, we took turns pushing each other on a float through the 20-foot grotto waterfall (the poor man's massage therapy). In between dunks, we talked about arranging a few hours to ourselves that night. It wouldn't be hard; we could book a hotel babysitter or park the kids in one of Disney's child-care "clubs." Surely, after four nonstop days, we needed a little grownup time.
But no, we decided, we really didn't. With a little care and a lot of fun, Disney with the kids was plenty grownup for us.
Steve Hendrix will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.