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Ready . . . set . . . Disney

A little planning (not too much; this is supposed to be fun) can help a Florida family get the most out of Disney World, for one visit or many.

By WILMA NORTON
Published January 7, 2007


You've probably seen them, those vacationers from Kenosha or Rochester or St. Louis. They're the ones explaining to a sobbing child that It's a Small World is closed for renovation.

They're the ones standing in line 90 minutes for a chance at 90 seconds on Dumbo.

They're the ones who, despite their vow to enjoy the Happiest Place on Earth, are saying between clenched teeth, "Stop that whining and have fun."

They are not us.

As residents of Central Florida, we have a luxury our Northern and Midwestern friends just can't imagine: We live within a two-hour drive of Disney World.

We can go there any time we want, especially in winter and fall, when the crowds are small and the weather cool.

This time of year is ours.

A Disney family

A friend once asked, "Do they call you by name when you walk through the gates over there?"

Not exactly.

But over the past 10 years, Disney World has become part of our family experience. We've spent more than 100 days there. Our daughters' growth can be documented in snapshots with Mickey, Pluto, Goofy and pals.

Our older daughter recently characterized the difference between our family and her best friend's: "They're a camping family; we're a theme park family."

Whether you're a first-timer or frequent fliers like us, it's always best to approach the vast Disney kingdom with a plan.

We try not to get too bogged down in mapping a strategy. The point is to have fun.

But it's easier to have a good time if you have some idea what kind of merriment you want.

Armed with a basic outline, we stave off disagreements and ensure (usually) that no one goes home disappointed. And, because we're not wandering aimlessly, we have time to try things that might not have been on our original list.

That's the biggest lesson on how to have a good time at Disney: Be prepared but ready to go with the flow.

Along the way, we've compiled a host of other tidbits that we share with friends on things that make our visits special, our locals guide to the Mouse House.

Now, we share them with you.

Selecting tickets

Avoid confusion at the gate by researching what kind is best for you. The options are mind-boggling. The Disney Web site, www.disneyworld.com, can be confusing, too, but it lets you plug in all your information and see the ticket and resort options.

We buy Florida resident seasonal passes, which are good for a year from the first day of use. When they expire, we take a few months off.

For an adult (anyone 10 and older) that pass costs about $230 with tax, a little more than the price of three one-day admissions. The passes give us unlimited, park-hopping entry to the four theme parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Disney-MGM Studios. The seasonal pass has blockout dates: two weeks at Christmas, two weeks at Easter and about six weeks in the summer, but we don't mind. Those are times we don't want to be there because of the crowds and/or the heat. The annual pass, which is good every day of the year, costs about $100 more.

Where to stay

Sometimes, we just drive in for the day. It's 83 miles and, if we're lucky with traffic, less than 90 minutes, from our house in north St. Petersburg to the entrance of Disney. We've occasionally gone to church on Sunday morning, been inside a theme park by lunch time and home by 9.

Usually, we spend a night or two at one of the "on property" resorts. If you stay in a Disney hotel, you get free parking at the theme parks (a $10 savings) and access to Disney transportation. Again, the range of accommodations is daunting, with everything from the All Star value resorts (which are $99 a night in peak season) to the spectacular Grand Floridian, where rooms are never less than $350.

Our favorite is Disney's Pop Century. It's not fancy, but it's inexpensive and the newest of the value resorts. In the offseason, Florida residents can stay there and at the other value resorts for as little as $49 or $59 a night.

I've had better luck getting hotel deals by calling a Disney reservation line at (407) 934-7639 (and, yes, it is irritating that Disney doesn't have a toll-free number) than by reserving online. Be sure to tell them you are a Florida resident or passholder.

What to eat

We usually grab muffins or cereal at the hotel for breakfast, share a couple of entrees at a light lunch and then have a sit-down dinner.

We buy the Disney Dining Experience pass that is only offered to Florida residents and passholders. For $60, you get 20 percent off food and beverages in the sit-down restaurants for up to 10 people.

Our favorite places for full meals: Boma at the Animal Kingdom Lodge (a buffet of African foods); the Rose and Crown pub in the United Kingdom section of Epcot; the Biergarten restaurant in the Germany section of Epcot; and the '50s Prime Time Cafe at Disney-MGM.

Favorites for lunch or light meals, places with something other than cheeseburgers and chicken tenders: The Harbor House at the Magic Kingdom (salads, clam chowder, hummus sandwiches, poached chicken for the kids); the ABC Commissary at Disney-MGM (tabbouleh wraps, Cuban sandwiches, chicken curry); the Tusker House at Animal Kingdom (turkey wraps, rotisserie chicken, grilled salmon) and the Sunshine Seasons food court at Epcot (sushi, salads, flatbreads).

Our favorite character meals:

- The Garden Grill at Epcot with Mickey and Friends. The food is homestyle (fried catfish, flank steak, rotisserie turkey) and the characters come to you. No missing Mickey while you're at the buffet.

- Crystal Palace at the Magic Kingdom with Pooh and friends. This one is a buffet, but the wide selection of food (prime rib, adobo pork, salmon, peel-and-eat shrimp and more) plus the pretty room make it fun. We often schedule this for 4 or 5 p.m., a cool early dinner after a long, warm day.

- Breakfast with Chef Mickey at the Contemporary Resort. Again, it's a buffet, but it's fun to watch the monorail pass overhead while you eat Mickey waffles. We've celebrated a number of birthdays here.

General tips

- Get to the parks a few minutes before opening time. Most open at 9 a.m., sometimes earlier for Disney hotel guests. Sure, you're on vacation. But so is everybody else. Let them sleep late. If you are there when the park opens, you can have your choice of rides without a wait.

The only time there isn't a line for Dumbo at the Magic Kingdom is during the first hour the park is open. If Dumbo is on your list, go directly there.

- If the sign says the wait time is 20 minutes or less at any given ride, jump in line. The signs usually overestimate: 20 minutes often means less than 10.

- Use Fast Pass whenever possible. Insert your tickets into the Fast Pass machine at the front of the attraction and receive a time-stamped ticket. Arrive back at the attraction within the hour on the Fast Pass and go directly to the front of the line.

You can only get one Fast Pass at a time or one every two hours, so it's best to reserve them for the things that are on your must-do list.

- Take snacks. If you're taking a stroller, coolers are okay, too. Now that we're past the stroller stage, I don't like to be weighed down by a lot of stuff, but it's nice to have a bag of peanuts or Goldfish to tide you over.

- Don't feel you must buy a $3 bottle of water. Any of the restaurants will give you a large glass of ice water if you ask.

- In the rainy season, stop at a discount store and get everyone a poncho before you go. Not only are they cheaper than the ones sold at the parks, they are also distinctive. It's much easier to keep up with your group if you're all wearing blue or red rain gear amid a sea of people in yellow Mickey ponchos.

A guide to the parks 

Animal Kingdom

The newest Disney theme park has had trouble finding its identity. Even now, with the new Expedition Everest ride and Finding Nemo stage show (which we haven't seen), it's not a place we spend an entire day.

Arrive early here, and not just to avoid lines. The animals are friskier before the day heats up. In the mornings, we've seen the male lion standing on his rock, roaring like crazy, and the Bengal tigers walk up to the glass and look us straight in the eye.

The safari is different each time (except for the story line), depending on how active the animals are and how into his or her job the safari driver/narrator is.

Magic Kingdom

The original Disney park in Florida is still what most people think of when they imagine Disney World.

Unless posing with the characters is your prime objective, walk past them at the entrance and on Main Street. There will be plenty of chances to catch up with them in Mickey's Toontown and around the park.

We used to make a beeline for Dumbo, the Winnie the Pooh ride and Peter Pan, but these days, we're moved more by the three mountains (Space, Splash and Big Thunder) and Pirates of the Caribbean.

None of us, though, will outgrow Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin or Mickey's Philharmagic.

Magic Kingdom gripe: This is the site of the worst parking lot at Disney, one of Walt Disney's few miscalculations. To get to the gate, you have to walk or take a tram to the "Transportation and Ticket Center," then get on a boat or monorail to reach the entrance. Since we like to start at Magic Kingdom and end the day at Epcot, we park at Epcot and ride the monorail from there straight to the door at the Magic Kingdom. Even if you don't go to Epcot, it's still a good parking strategy.

Other Magic Kingdom downers: Snow White's Scary Adventure (too tame for grownups and older kids, terrifying for little ones expecting happy, singing dwarfs) and Stitch's Great Escape (dark and lame with a blast of chili dog belch in your face).

Epcot

This salute to the future and to the countries of the world is our favorite park. We sometimes arrive before opening at 9 a.m. and stay until the park closes at 9:30 p.m.

We hit all the biggies in the Future World section, which usually opens at 9: Test Track, Soarin' (a simulated hang glider ride over California) and Turtle Talk with Crush (an interactive show starring the animated turtle from Finding Nemo). It's always different and he reacts to questions from children in the audience. Still don't quite understand how that works.)

Then we hit the World Showcase, which circles a lake. If we don't have a dinner reservation, we get a munchie in each country.

Feel free to laugh at this next tip; all our friends do. But then, after they go, they understand. If it's late afternoon when you begin, circle the World Showcase from Canada to Mexico. If you don't, the setting sun will be in your eyes all the way from Germany through France, and that's not fun.

Disney-MGM

Because many of the big attractions at Disney's movie park are live shows - the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, Playhouse Disney Live (with Bear in the Big Blue House, Stanley, Pooh and more), the Lights, Motors, Actions Extreme Stunt Show, Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage - it's important to get a schedule and plot when to see what.

I always feel like we do an extra lot of walking here, trying to reach venues at the appointed times.

This is the best park for getting autographs and photos with the Disney characters. The Playhouse Disney and Toy Story gangs have regular spots, and other characters position themselves in the plaza in front of the giant Sorcerer's hat throughout the day.

Disney-MGM is host to the ABC Super Soap weekend in the fall and Star Wars weekends in May. Unless you are a fan, avoid the park then.

Walt Disney World

There are four theme parks at Walt Disney World: Animal Kingdom, Disney-MGM Studios, Epcot and the Magic Kingdom. The resort also includes the Downtown Disney shopping, dining and entertainment area and Disney's Wide World of Sports. Interstate 4, Exit 62, west of Orlando. (407) 934-7639; www.disneyworld.com. Hours vary. Single-day admission to any of the four theme parks: $67 plus tax adults, $56 plus tax ages 3-9. Discounts for Florida residents.

For "unofficial" information - including menus of all the restaurants - check out www.allearsnet.com.

Least crowded times: Now to President's Day, mid-April to late May, Labor Day to mid-November, early December

DAD'S TOP 5

1. Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. The Aerosmith shtick is dated, but the ride's 0-to-60 launch into a corkscrew never gets old unlike, say, Steven Tyler.

2. Expedition Everest. Disney's newest coaster may not have the initial adrenaline rush of Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, but the backward, runaway train portion of the ride is almost as fun.

3. Test Track, right. The all-too-brief rush of a car hitting a high-banked turn at 60-plus mph is such a thrill that it makes you wonder: What must it be like racing on Daytona's high curves at 200?

4. Monorails. Nothing brings back childhood faster than the parks' iconic transportation. Alas, if only the Florida Legislature shared my (and Walt's) fondness for light rail.

5. Epcot. I've heard all the "it's-just-a-glorified-food-court" criticism of this park's World Showcase and, frankly, I don't care. I like it and it helps that there's always a cool international beer to be had on a hot afternoon.

Peter Couture, Times staff writer

A KID'S TOP 5

1. Expedition Everest. This ride was scary at first, but I really liked it after I did it a couple more times.

2. Space Mountain. You may not really be in space, but it looks like it, and it's kind of like Big Thunder Mountain, only indoors and in the dark.

3. Test Track. You get to pretend you are testing one of GM's newest car models, only at GM you don't ride around a building at 65 mph.

4. Pirates of the Caribbean. Help Captain Jack Sparrow defeat the evil Captain Barbosa and his clan of Pirate Skeletons (I wish they would cut the phony "dead men tell no tales" stuff).

5. Turtle Talk with Crush. You get to talk to Crush from Finding Nemo and ask him questions about life in the sea. (And maybe get a visit from Dory and the Whale!)

Emma Couture, 8

A TEEN'S TOP 5

1. Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. The feeling of being pressed into your seat while you shoot through a loop and a corkscrew is great. No matter how much you ride it, it's always fun. I've been on it so many times I can practically recite the stupid preshow.

2. Expedition Everest. I love the view from the top of this coaster, going backward in the dark, and all of the special effects (except for that fake bird by the broken train tracks). Even the line for Expedition Everest is good. It winds through a museum dedicated to Mount Everest and the Yeti that supposedly lives there.

3. Tower of Terror, right. Tower of Terror has a great waiting area. You go through a deserted hotel lobby and then down into the boiler room before boarding a "service elevator." The elevator shoots up 13 stories and then drops. My favorite thing about Tower of Terror is that it is random, so you never know how many drops there will be or how long they will last.

4. Test Track. The preshow video is lame, as are some of the "tests," especially the environmental test chambers. The ride around the track at 65 mph makes up for all of that. It's especially fun at night.

5. Splash Mountain. Splash Mountain is my favorite ride at the Magic Kingdom. It's cute but still exciting. Sort of like if It's a Small World had a five-story drop.

Hannah Couture, 14

MOM'S TOP 5

1. The Epcot Food and Wine Festival in the fall. Our kids are adventurous eaters, so we have great fun plotting which foods we're going to try from which countries. It's a good adults-only outing, too.

2. The Osborne Family Festival Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Christmastime. It's overdone and hokey, with faux snow falling on you as you walk down the movie backlot at Disney-MGM, but something about it always puts me in a holiday mood.

3. Big Thunder Mountain. I'll do Expedition Everest and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster once or twice each visit, but I love the old-fashioned thrill of riding Big Thunder with my hands in the air the whole way.

4. Turtle Talk with Crush. Even after a dozen viewings, I love the idea that the animated turtle can adapt to questions from children in the audience.

5. Anything else the rest of the gang wants to do. I'm just along for the ride and the company.