Dreaded D-Day experience better than expected
With our oldest son Jake soon heading off to the wild world of middle school next fall, I knew the clock was ticking toward D-Day, and boy was I dreading the requisite trip to Disney.
Seems that soon after Walt Disney erected his magical castle that senators Lassie, Goofy and Dick Van Dyke snuck in a Constitutional amendment that if you're an American parent worth your Wheaties some time in your child's raising you must haul 'em off to see Walt Disney World and revel in its glitter-coated glory.
So, although I'd rather have been on a slow train up Cass, W.Va., I found myself a few weeks back on spring break, hopping aboard one of those crazy-cheap direct flights to Florida to do some Dave Trippin' to the planet of theme parks known as Disney.
While I left my street cred and wallet trampled beneath triple-kid-strollers on Magic Kingdom's Main Street, things were better than I feared. I seemed to have returned with at least part of my soul intact, and I sort of liked it.
Without further ado, here's Dave's dirty dozen (or less) tips for dads who gotta do the Disney.
Just do it and don't wait
Setzer's World of Camping is right -- "the kids are going to grow up and prices are going to go up." I love, love, love my parents who took us four snot-nosed brats to a million cool places, but they hauled us to Appomattox Court House when I was about four (and knew more about the Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee than the real one), and then took us to Disney World when we were in high school. Yeah, backward and awkward. When two of my sisters and I were getting unmercifully pelted with "It's a Small World" sing-a-longs, our oldest sister was hosting her own version of "Space Mountain" -- a weeklong party with our friends back home.
So as soon as the kids are above the height to actually ride the real rides (about 44 inches for the parks and 48 inches for the water parks) and big enough to actually walk the 8 to 10 miles a day you'll be walking -- bite the bullet and book it if you all like amusement parks.
Plan, plan, plan
Normally, the Dave Trippin' crew does a minimal amount of trip planning so the trail magic can just happen, like stopping to stay all night at the Palace of Gold with the Hare Krishnas. Hey, don't knock it until you've tried it.
But going to Disney isn't one of those let-it-just-happen trips. You really can't read and plan enough for a first trip. We planned for almost a good year. Email and get in the Disney system to get their free DVD, planning guides and maybe a PIN number for discounts. Scour books such as the "Unofficial Guide to Disney" (very helpful) and talk to folks 'round here. Since Allegiant Air has been running direct, low-cost flights to Orlando since November 2006, there are folks here who've hit Disney more often than Lil' Wayne has hit a recording studio. We got lots of cost-saving tips (like www.mousesaver.com) from friends here in Huntington.
While we found a place (Pop Century) on the cheap inside Disney, other folks we know here in Huntington stayed at friend's condos in central Florida for next to nothing.
Don't forget to shoot around a Facebook notice that you're planning a trip to see who may have a condo in the Orlando area. But if you do stay in the parks you won't need a car as they have superb system of buses, boats and monorail.
And if you and the kids aren't in good physical shape, use the upcoming trip as a great excuse to get everyone walking daily -- or at least a few times a week -- to prep for a more pleasant trip and lifestyle.
When to say when
Timing is everything and you can definitely avoid some of the worst crowds by not hitting peak weeks. This year the kids' spring break did not bump up against Easter, which made it OK to go without a true crush of crowds. From The Unofficial Guide, we got the "Lines" app and subscribed to www.touringplan.com to get access to the full year's calendar. You also can go to www.yourfirstvisit.net, which ranks the year's weeks from best to worst for times to visit factoring in crowds, weather and price.
Also, remember the temperature difference of central Florida. We went out of our cool, soggy cocoon of green to the Palm tree grill of temps in the mid-90s in April. So if you're like our crew, which tans about as well as a Maine lobster, June-July-August-September may not be your months.
There is an app and a FastPass for that
Nobody likes to wait, and at Disney you really don't have to if you work the system right. We waited no more than 15 minutes for even the most popular rides thanks to Disney's FastPass system and to "Lines" app that lets you know how long the waits are for all of the parks' busiest rides.
The FastPass lets you use your ticket at the most popular rides to obtain one timed ticket per person. The FastPass gives you a designated time after which you can skip the regular line and zip right through a FastPass line to the front of the ride. But you don't have to go at the exact designated time, just after that time, so you can acquire multiple FastPasses to use at your leisure.
During the busiest days, when you first get through the gates at rope drop, try to designate someone to take everyone's tickets and nab FastPasses for the most popular ride. While the rest of the fam high-tails it to one another of the most popular rides. We did that a couple mornings, nailing the largest and most popular rides early before the crushing crowds came. I don't care what is in Winnie the Pooh's honeybucket, I am not waiting an hour to find out. For waiting though load up some fun SmartPhone game apps and comic books in the backpack.
Exit quickly through
the gift shop
Since Mickey Mouse has a Ph.D in emptying dad's wallets, you can't be unprepared. Every ride ends in a gift shop stuffed with more versions of Mickey Mouse ears, pirate swords and cool merch than should be legal.
Our boys got a budget of $50, which was chore-earned cash. We also brought a roll of pennies and quarters since every ride has a pressed penny or quarter souvenir machine to press coins with the ride's image. A 51 cent souvenir? Sign me up and in your face Mickey Mouse.
Also for spending money, if you plan ahead, have grandparents bypass Christmas and birthday gifts and fork over some Disney gift cards. We got enough coin from the gray-haired set to pay for all meals that we didn't pack in.
One nice thing on the cheap we did was hook up with Garden Grocer (www.gardengrocer.com). They deliver groceries to hotels in Orlando, so when we arrived at our hotel room, they'd already filled it up with a week's worth of groceries that saved us hundreds of dollars.
You can pack in any food and beverages (no alcohol) to the Disney parks, and we took a backpack cooler to pack in wraps, healthy snacks and water bottles, which we refilled. Since the water in Disney parks is a bit different from our Ohio River vintage, we took lemonade packets to toss in. Just in water alone we figure we saved at least $80. Go online at www.gardengrocer.com.
At least for us, but for many, Epcot is the most culinary interesting park as you can in a one-mile circle eat and drink (if you like $9 drinks) your way 'round the world. For meals in the park, it's definitely worth scouring the "Unofficial Guide" and other books that honestly, and sometimes brutally, rate Disney restaurants. We found some inexpensive options with amazing outdoor spaces -- a sweet little bonsai garden in Japan at Epcot, and a quiet lakeside shelter (with zero people) and a view of Will's favorite ride Expedition Everest at Flame Tree Barbecue at Animal Kingdom.
Just say no to add-ons
If you fly -- and with these cheap two-hour flights and high gas prices nobody in their right mind would drive 20-plus-hours to Florida -- be sure to try and have the fam take one carryon luggage (no bigger than 9-inches-tall-by-14-width-by-22-deep) to forgo the $35 per person for checked baggage. Also, never pay for the long list of extras the airlines like to tag you with, and the same goes for Disney which, has some pricey add-ons like Park Hopper.
Buy basic tickets. There's no reason to buy extras upfront since you can add those on (park hopper and water parks) at the park (for the same price) if you would really like. Call me old-fashioned, but it sounds like something's wrong if one world-class amusement park in a day isn't enough. Like going to the Kentucky Derby downing juleps and watching world-class thoroughbred racing but being unsatisfied until you're whisked away to the Belmont Stakes.
Stay on your own trip
With the hordes of jostling crowds and the pressure to "see it all" it's easy to get stressed, get ugly and go Clark Griswold on your crew. It's not necessary, and you don't have to "go" all the time. Make sure you take time to chill, nap and relax. When we were getting a bit frazzled at Epcot, we pulled up on a grassy knoll and took a 30-minute nap. If we stayed late at a park one night, we rolled in late to another one the next day.
Be sure to know your family's routines. If you're early risers (and that pays off big time at the parks) get there before the rope drop when the park opens, and if you're staying on Disney property take advantage of the days you get can into selected parks even earlier than the general public or stay late.
If you're a late rising crew, get up casually, hit the pool and then go to the parks mid-afternoon, knowing though you will be waiting longer for rides.
Last but not least, be courteous, be kind but don't worry about everybody else there, as you may very well encounter humans of the stupid kind. We saw it all from parents who let a chubby kid lick a fallen dessert off the pavement like they were on the set of "Willy Wonka" to moms going Mel Gibson-like nutso on crying toddlers at 11 at night demanding to know what was wrong with them.
Disney was right but so was John Prine. It may be a small world after all but it's big ol' goofy world too.
And now thanks to direct flights we can easily trip to see Mickey, Goofy and friends then roll back to these sweet hilly arms of West Virginia in two hours -- back to a real honest-to-goodness community with real people and real main streets filled with authentic potholes and everything.
Here's some more great ways to read about regional travel in the Herald-Dispatch.
WEEKLY TRAVEL: Read our weekly Travel destination each Thursday inside Weekend, the 20-page pull-out section inside the newspaper.
IN THE GUIDE: Check out the brand new 50-page Spring/Summer 2011 Tri-State Visitor's Guide published by the H-D and now available for free at the newspaper as well as the Cabell-Huntington Convention and Visitor's Bureau.
IN THE BOOK: At the H-D front desk you can purchase "Dave Trippin: A Daytripper's Guide to the Appalachian Galaxy of Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia," a 300-page travel book with a dozen great weekend trips in each state. Cost is $10.
ON THE WEB: Go online at www.herald-dispatch.com where you can click on the Tri-State Visitor's Guide as well as read the blog by OUS professor and travel professional Steve Call. You can also go online at www.davetrippin.com for more info as well.
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