Ever since my first boyfriend dumped me at Disney World - you know, the happiest place on earth - I've had mixed feelings about the place. It truly is magical. The cast members can make even the most skeptical woman a little giddy just with the offering of a sticker. It's clean (Disney legend has it you're never more than 20 paces from a trash can). And it really is fun. But. It's also hot, crowded, exhausting and expensive.
Twenty years after that initial heartbreak, I returned to good ol' Lake Buena Vista and her theme parks, with healed wounds. Ever the itinerant traveler, I made sure to research the best way to have the experience be more positive than negative. And so, as a service to others who may soon take that trip south with little ones in tow, I present my Disney Hacks.
Avoid Magic Hours. Every day, a different Disney theme park is open for extra hours. While this seems like a good deal, avoid the parks with these days. The additional time attracts additional crowds, leaving the other three parks less than full.
Book Your Fastpass Selections Early. Every Disney guest starts the day with three Fastpass selections, which allow you to jump to the front of the line. Families staying at a Disney resort can book three attractions per day up to 60 days prior to the trip. Everyone else can do this 30 days in advance.
Download the App. The My Disney Experience App is a valuable (and free) tool. In addition to helping you find restaurants, restrooms, Anna and Elsa, it also allows users to see which rides and attractions have the longest wait at any given time. The ones with the longest wait? Those are your Fastpass selections.
Get There Early. It's antithetical to the idea of vacation, but sleeping in is for a different trip. Be prepared to be at the parks 30 to 60 minutes before they open. You'll be the first ones in and will be able to visit popular attractions without a wait.
Go to the Back. When you arrive early, head straight to the back of the park and work your way to the entrance. Most people will stop at Main Street U.S.A. or Fantasyland first. Let them do the waiting.
Shop Elsewhere. Downtown Disney and the airport have nearly every souvenir you can find inside the parks and are less crowded.
Restful Rides. Several attractions have shorter lines, a place to sit plus air conditioning. At Magic Kingdom, hit up Country Bear Jamboree, It's a Small World and Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress. At Epcot, Ellen's Energy Adventure is the way to go.
Restroom Break. Need private facilities without a line? Take the boat to Tom Sawyer Island.
Pack a Poncho. It will probably rain when you're there. Stay (kind of) dry and continue on with festivities. The storm will pass.
Where Everybody Knows Your Name. Celebrating a birthday? An anniversary? Is it someone's first trip to the parks? Head to Downtown Disney the day before you visit the theme parks and get a personalized button at one of the shops. Cast members will greet the button holder by name with a boisterous "Happy Birthday" or "Thanks for visiting us" throughout the trip.
Ship to Your Hotel. Put that Amazon Prime account to use, and ship necessities. Diapers, bottled water, snacks. Whatever day-to-day necessity you need, it's overpriced in Orlando. And if you're relying on Disney Transportation, you'll get nowhere near a grocery store.
Your Hotel Restaurant is Overpriced. But it probably has a fridge. Over-order at Downtown Disney (Earl of Sandwich is reasonably priced) and dine on leftovers. Or order pizza. But not from room service.
Yes, we're talking booze. While Magic Kingdom is dry, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios are happy to pour the adults an adult beverage.
Go for the Good Stuff. While macro brews are priced high, the micro brews, such as Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA are priced close to "real world" pricing. Grab a pint at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant at Hollywood Studios.
Imbibe Around the World.Epcot's World Showcase showcases more than just themed gift shops and short films. Drink what the locals drink in each country, and don't miss the Sake tasting in the back of Mitsukoshi Department Store, the Japanese gift shop.