Rich and I would like to share some tips we've picked up from years of going to Walt Disney World and Disneyland, both when it was just the two of us and when we've gone with our son.
WDW is not going away nor closing any time soon. Hold out in your mind as you plan that it's possible to come back at a later time to further or finish seeing/doing things that might not be possible on this first trip. This little psychological "trick" will reduce your stress levels once you're at WDW. It's such a huge place, so much to see/do, so highly stimulating, and so costly, that it's tempting to want to see/do it all that first trip in order to "finish" it and "get your money's worth out of it". Do your research on what to see/do. Each member of the family pick X-number of attractions or shows or restaurants or resort activities that are "must do" for that individual in order to get a good taste of what Disney is all about. If you get to do everything on the X-number "must do" list, then great, the vacation is a "success" and you won't feel stressed out and everyone in the family will have seen or done their "musts". Make the X-number rather low, maybe about 5 things per person and no more than 10 per person for the entire trip. It's too easy to fall into the stress trap of trying to see and do it all. Lower your expectations, resolve to do more "next trip", and you'll have a magical vacation.
A "good buy" as a momento of your trip is a professionally photographed portrait of your family while you're there. These are cheap (under ฤ, I don't have the exact price in my head) and are everywhere: On Main Street USA with the castle in the background, or in Mickey's Toontown Fair at the Character meet-and-greet/autograph sessions, etc. You'll be given a ticket and instructions on where to go and when to be there to view the photo, usually a few hours later. You may reject the photo if you're not satisfied with it. Otherwise you can pay for it and get it inserted into a nice sleeve that doubles as a matte for an 8 x 10 frame (and there are lots of frames for sale that are Disney-themed, too!. T-shirts fade and people can grow out of the sizes, toys and plastic geegaws accumulate and lose their specialness. But the nice photo is capturing a moment of time in your family life and is enjoyable and "fresh" for many years to come.
Regarding the photo: If there is a ghost of a chance you might want copies to insert into letters or Christmas cards, spend the bucks and get the copies made then and there. The downside of the professionally taken pictures is that Disney retains the copyright on them. No outside professional photography duplicating place, not even those Kodak scanners the public can use in stores, will duplicate a copyrighted photo for you without prior written permission of the copyright holder (a well-trained store clerk will refuse to assist you with the Kodak scanner and you'll notice at some places signs posted about this policy). Of course if you have your own scanner and can print photos at home no one knows what you do in the privacy of your own home. At our local Wal-Mart the clerks turn people away a lot who are trying to duplicate portraits taken at WDW and that particular store is strict about it. Your mileage may vary. But this is just a "heads up" about that matter.
If you see a souvenir you like buy it then and there! Some souvenirs are only for sale in one area and you might not find it later if you decide you want an item you saw before. There is a WDW Merchandise Mail Order phone number (found in most of the guide books) for those who wish they had gone ahead and bought whatever it was while they were there but didn't. But it's a little cheaper to go ahead and buy it when you see it, because the shipping costs are more than the sales tax. Disney souvenirs are good for birthday gifts for your own child or others, holiday gift giving, stocking stuffers, goodie treats for guests to your child's birthday party, etc. Plus, if you buy something at any of the stores at Walt Disney World and later rethink your decision, deciding you don't actually want or need it, you can return it at the gift shop of the Disney Resort you're staying at for a full refund, no matter where at Walt Disney World you bought it.
If you like the theme park music, you can buy a CD of it. At Downtown Disney Marketplace in the World of Disney retail area there's a little kiosk where you can make your own theme park CDs. You select from titles tied to each theme park and attraction, you can audition it first, and then make your own CD. This is a little expensive vs. a pre-made CD, and also takes time to do, but it's another "permanent" sort of souvenir if you like Disney theme park music. These kiosks can also be found in the theme parks but there might be a shorter line and thus a shorter wait if you use the one in the World of Disney store.
Buy an autograph book for your child to collect Character autographs in. You can go to Guest Services in the parks and get a schedule and map of where the Disney Characters gather to do meet-and-greets (if you weren't given one as you entered the park), or you can go to a Character meal (see below) and collect autographs there, too. If you're into making scrapbooks, those are available, too, but be aware that extra fill pages will need to be mail-ordered.
We recommend going to a Character meal of some kind. They are offered in the parks and at the various WDW resorts. We like Chef Mickey's for breakfast and dinner at the Contemporary Resort, but really you won't go wrong at any of them. They're expensive, it's true, but the food is plentiful and varied and quite good, and the Characters are fun and funny. Plan ahead for these and call (407) WDW-DINE to make reservations (called "priority seating" by Disney).
- Prepare Before Your Trip:
You can get a couple of good preparation ideas from home videos. Get one of the Disney travel videos that are offered for free via 1-800 toll-free phone numbers shown on Disney TV commercials from time to time. If that's not available, buy the Disney Sing-A-Long video "It's A Small World/Disneyland Fun", for sale for ű.99 at places like Wal-Mart, K-Mart, etc. It's about Disneyland and the video is actually very dated. However, it will prep your child very well on what to expect: rides, parades, eating there, the sizes of the Characters, thrill rides and tamer rides, fireworks at the end of the night over the castle, that the Haunted Mansion is a fun and funny kind of "scary", etc. Some of Disneyland's version of the attractions look different than the Walt Disney World versions, but what you're after is an orientation in advance of the trip. A second sing-a-long video about Animal Kingdom, "Flik's Musical Adventure", is also for sale at the same price and at the same places. A lot about Animal Kingdom has changed since the park opened and the video was produced, however it will show lots of glimpses of the park and its fun and educational nature.
The "Walt Disney World Explorer (Second Edition)" CD-ROM from Amazon.com is useful for good pre-trip preparation.
There are interactive water play areas where children can get wet while burning off some steam. Don't forget to pack a change of clothes and shoes and a towel, and a large zip-lock plastic bag to put the wet clothes in.
If you have a conventional film camera err on the side of buying a little "too much" film in advance of your trip. It's cheaper to buy it at home, and we've found we can't stop taking pictures once we're there! Kodak film and disposable cameras are everywhere at WDW, but it takes away from valuable park time to buy more film/disposable cameras once you're there. Plus, it is priced at "captive audience" prices at the parks.
Get the latest edition of "Birnbaum's Walt Disney World: Expert Advice from the Inside Source". It has lots of pictures and fun information and tips. Disney heavily manages the book, so it's "slanted" in favor of Disney.
And for a balanced view, also get "Bob Sehlinger's "Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World" (current year, changes each fall to the upcoming year as does Birnbaum's guide). This one strips a lot of the pixie dust away and gets down to practicalities. Excellent touring advice and good tour plan guides will steer your family away from long lines and maximize your time in the parks. Read the tour plan designed for families with young children. Also see the excellent parenting chapter titled "Whose dream is it, anyway?" about the realities of touring WDW and setting realistic expectations. It is just about the best parenting guide I've ever read.
At LaughingPlace.com and MousePlanet.com you'll find sections about Disneyland and WDW plus a section of essays about Parenting in the Parks that generally can translate to WDW touring.
Deb's unofficial Walt Disney World Information Guide (WDWIG) is a very good WDW fan site.
Don't forget to check out Disney's official website to get news and tips about the parks.
Be generally willing to have a "sleep is for wimps" attitude, too. If you can get up early early early early early and be at the gates first thing in the morning you can tour and ride and knock out a lot of attractions before noon. Starting in late morning the lines begin to lengthen into being rather daunting. During parades and fireworks and the couple of hours near park closing and during rainstorms are other "slow" times at the rides when you can practically "walk on" and not wait much in line. Disney sells cute rain ponchos (yellow at the Magic Kingdom) that you can get for those sudden downpours. Just keep touring about in the rain, or take advantage of the parades and fireworks to finish seeing attractions or re-ride what you rode before and loved.
The advice to leave the parks at lunch time and return to the resort for lunch and a rest/nap and maybe even a swim is indeed good advice. It's hard to tear away and leave, but the slower pace of the resort is needed for a little R & R. The lunch prices at the resorts can also be cheaper than what you'd pay in the parks. My husband and I would go to WDW from sunrise until late in the night when they'd have to force us out at closing , but that's not good with a young child in tow. The family as a whole needs to get out of the highly stimulating atmosphere for a few hours and assimilate the first part of the day and unwind a bit, avoid the heat and the long lines and heavier crowds. In the mid-afternoon, go back and it's amazing how much better it is after the refreshment of a few hours away.
Even if you child is at the ripe old age of 5 years old as ours is, bring a stroller for your child -- a cheap umbrella-type is fine -- because it saves your child's feet. Bring something very unique and "weird" with your name on it to tie onto it to identify it as yours vs. someone else's with the same design. We have never had anyone take or bother our stroller at WDW when we park it to go to an attraction, so rest assured it will stay safe (but don't leave valuables with it). Be aware of crowds because it is easy to become distracted as you look around at the sights and maybe you'll clip someone's ankles with the stroller by accident. You will see more strollers in one place than you ever thought existed in the world! Just be aware of your surroundings and be polite about there being people around you within ankle-reach of the stroller.
We've found that a trip to the Disney theme parks can be very good for your child's development. It doesn't matter where you take your child or what you see/do, all of WDW is _very_ fun and stimulating! Go and enjoy yourself as a family and just have a swell time! You'll be amazed at what your child will pick up from the experience.
You will avoid most of the long lines if you are willing to be in the parks first thing in the morning or see attractions during parades, fireworks and/or rainstorms. FastPass is wonderful! It's a Disney-blessed way of "cutting in line" at some of the more popular attractions. Shove each of your theme park tickets into the FastPass slot at the attraction you want to ride. Out will come a little ticket-pass with a time range a couple of hours into the future stamped on it for each of you. Go away, come back within the time frame and go to the specially designated FastPass entrance. Someone will take your FastPasses from you and allow you onto the ride ahead of the other very much longer line you'll see non-FastPass users standing in. Most of the FastPass rides are the thrill "E-ticket" rides, but at the Magic Kingdom even the Pooh ride in Fantasyland is a FastPass and is very, very tame (I love it).
If your child is not up to riding the thrill rides use the "Baby Swap": Stand in line and get to where the Cast Member will seat you. Tell the CM you want to "baby swap" or "switch off". Parent #1 of 2 rides while parent #2 of 2 stays behind with your child. Parent #1 returns and takes over watching your son and Parent #2 will immediately go on to ride. Parent #2 returns and everyone can then leave. The CM will show you where to wait.
Also, the "Bubba Relay" described in the Unofficial Guide really does work at Dumbo in Fantasyland. The technique allows you to take your child twice in a row on a ride without the child having to wait in long line to do so. It involves both parents being in line separately, with a certain number of Guests in between them for the switch-off to work.
If for any reason you need an accomodation from Disney to avoid standing in long lines, it's best to call Guest Services well in advance of your trip, explain the nature of the situation that a member of your party cannot tolerate standing in long lines, ask what "proof" Disney will require, and Disney can issue you their own pass to present to Cast Members at rides and attractions to allow you to go on through. This generally allows the affected person and one escort, but in a small family they'd probably have no problem with letting everyone in to stay together. Ask about it generally if this is something you need to arrange for.
We've never needed any special accomodations when we've gone to WDW, so I'm not all that familiar with how to request such a pass from Disney. But I do know it's best to work with Disney on this matter and to ask how to work with Disney before leaving home, rather than risk "assuming" or take the time about it once you arrive.
I hope this helps! The rest of it you can glean from the various books and websites. If there are any other questions do feel free to reply here.