FAMILY VACATION – THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH

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There is just something magical about Walt Disney World.  It has the ability to fully immerse you in your vacation and make you completely forget about your life outside of this wondrous place!  It has the ability to make you feel like a kid again; where all the calories don’t matter and working out is just running from one ride to another.  I mean c’mon, really, what is more magical than ending everyday with fireworks?!

Walt Disney World has always held a very special place in my heart.  It is the vacation I remember most vividly from my childhood; going for the first time when I was 6 and again at the age of 10.   It is also because Kyle and I chose to go there on our honeymoon and again for our 5 year anniversary.

Stands to reason that when our beautiful baby girl was born July 2015, we couldn’t wait to start planning her first trip to Disney World.  But we did wait… we waited 2 years!! It was really difficult, but we wanted Sophia to be able to walk and talk before we went on a big trip like this. During these two years though it allowed us to save up the money to be able to stay where we wanted to stay on property (the only way to vacation at Disney if you ask us), and also allowed us to research the rides at the parks to find what she would be able to do when we went.  While ideally we would have waited until she was 3 to go for the first time, and gone in May or September (our favorite months to travel to WDW), it just so happened that we were pregnant with baby #2 in 2017, which would mean we would have had to wait until Sophia was 4 or 5 to go for the first time, which is right about the time she would be entering kindergarten; because we had an agreement that we wouldn’t take any kids to WDW before the age of 2…so we would have had to wait until Oliver was 2 to go.

Although traveling to hot and sunny Florida in the summer months was not what I had originally planned for my last couple months of pregnancy; we decided that Walt Disney World would be a great opportunity for one last only-kid vacation for Sophia.  One last vacation where she was the only center of attention 100% of the time from both mommy & daddy.  The turning point for this decision was however when we went to Colonial Williamsburg for Easter (April 2017) and she had an overwhelming positive response to meeting the Easter Bunny! We figured if she is this good with him, she would be great with all of the Disney characters.  So after some discussion, in May I booked out trip for August (when I would be between 7 and 8 months pregnant…yep crazy, I know!).

We knew that, at the age of 2, Sophia wouldn’t really understand the concept of going to Disney World and so we didn’t bother telling her until a month or two before we went.  She wasn’t quite at the age that she would ask every hour of every day how long it was until we were going, but likely next trip we will wait until just before we go, or do some sort of calendar countdown for her for the month before.  This time around I knew that she would want to see all of the characters and so I took it upon myself to come up with a cute autograph book that she could hand to to the characters to sign.  Of course the DIY person I am, I took to Pinterest to see what others had done.  I decided to go with the Disney Junior Encyclopedia of Animated Characters book since each character had their own page.  I took the binding off of the book and inserted some additional colored cardstock pages next to the characters I thought it was likely we would see and take photos with.  This way when we got back from vacation I could insert photos of her with those characters on the pages next to where they had signed.  I took the unbound book and extra cardstock pages to a local copy shop and asked them to spiral bind the book.  Spiral binding the book would make it much easier for the characters to hold and sign.  Below is a photo of Sophia flipping through the finished product.  It was heavy (she definitely couldn’t walk around holding it for extended periods of time), but we had a backpack with us with diapers, etc so the little extra weight wasn’t a bother.

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We were obviously very excited to take Sophia to Disney World.  We were however a bit concerned as this would be her first time on a plane and we weren’t sure how she would do.  To our delight, she was perfect!  She was excited to see the planes outside the windows as we waited and even more excited that she got her own seat between mommy and daddy.  She quickly sat down and looked over me out the window and as soon as we were backing away from the gate, we put the blind down on the window and popped Frozen on the iPad.  Within minutes she was asleep without so much as a peep about the takeoff.  She has ear tubes from chronic ear infections as a baby, which seemed to work in our advantage on take off & landing.  She ended up waking up about 45 minutes before we landed and was actually very interested in looking out the window at the world below.  She clearly as her mama’s thirst for travel and adventure!

We arrived at Orlando International Airport and easily found our way to Disney Express.  If you haven’t heard of this perk, you’re gonna want to listen up!  If you stay on property at Walt Disney World Resorts, you have the option of taking advantage of Disney’s Magical Express.  This AMAZING perk (especially if you have kids in tow) allows you to skip baggage pick-up, the hassle of renting a car, and the hassle of finding your way to your hotel.  Disney’s Magical Express does it all for you!! Like I said, AMAZING!  Even when it was just Kyle & I, we took advantage of this great perk!  When you book your vacation all you need to do is choose Disney Magical Express Transportation option, then a couple of weeks before your vacation you will receive in the mail yellow luggage tags.  You just place one of these tags on each piece of luggage you are checking, and after you check-in at the airport for your departure, you sit back and relax, because you don’t see your luggage again until you enter your hotel room!  Yep, Disney as thought of it all!  You literally just arrive, go to the Magical Express Transportation section of Orlando International, board the bus to your hotel and check-in at your hotel.  Within an hour of your arrival you should have your bags at your door!  The last couple times we visited the bags actually arrived either exactly as we were arriving or if we took a little longer because we stopped at a gift shop or something, the bags were already waiting in our room.  I just LOVE this service!  As I mentioned above, it is especially helpful if you have kids with you, no need to juggle the kids and luggage and making sure you have both, just enjoy your family and let Disney do the rest!

Though we have stayed at quite a few different Disney resorts (Art of Animation, All-Star Sports, Yacht Club and Boardwalk); this vacation we stayed at Disney’s Beach Club resort.  We typically like to stay around Epcot as we like to think that is our center for travel; mainly because it is a really quick place for us to walk over to and grab a bite to eat during our stay (if you haven’t tried the guac in Mexico, run, don’t walk, its awesome!).  Although the value resorts seem to be more geared towards kids, they are also a bit further away from the parks, meaning we have to travel exclusively by bus away from the resorts as compared to other resorts Disney has to offer.

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Now, if you have ever been to Disney World, I’m thinking you would automatically assume that Magic Kingdom is where we spent all our time, and you wouldn’t be far off, we did spend more than one day there, however we still managed to split time nicely among all parks.  The way I decided to plan this trip to Disney World this time around was based off of where we would be dining.  The reason I did this is because I scheduled a lot of character dining experiences.  I figured it would be the best way for Sophia to be able to meet the most characters without having to wait in line in the hot August Orlando sun!  Turns out this was a great plan!  Planning around where we were going to be dining each day made it much easier to decide which parks we went to and from there we could plan our Fast Passes.

The first day we spent at Animal Kingdom.  Sophia loves animals, so we made certain to arrive early just as the gates were due to open (1 hour early for those of us staying at a WDW resort hotel).  Immediately we went to the Kilimanjaro Safari.  Kyle and I absolutely loved this ride when visiting previously and it was no disappointment this time around either.  We did notice however since last time we had been, that the tour actually seems to run a backwards route compared to our last visit.  I think one of our favorite parts of the ride was the guide that took us around.  While I can admit we have been on the ride with a less than enthusiastic guide, the majority of the times we have gone on safari, the guides have been terrific! The morning is the perfect time to go on this ride if you can get there first thing when they open.  It is before the peak heat of the day and so it allows you the opportunity to see a great many more animals compared to mid day when the sun tends to keep them hidden.  So many of the animals also just recently had babies, so I think we saw about 4 or 5 different baby animals, including a baby elephant!

Another part of Animal Kingdom that we loved was the music.  At one point while we stopped to hydrate we came across a group singing and dancing.  Sophia wanted so much to go over and dance with them, but unfortunately we were on our way to her very first character meet & greet (Mickey & Minnie) so we had to pass at the early morning dancing.

As I said, Mickey & Minnie (at Adventures Outpost) was Sophia’s very first Disney character meet & greet.  It could not have gone better.  She absolutely  LOVED meeting them and took lots of photos! I HIGHLY recommend getting Disney’s PhotoPass.  I believe it runs about $125, but if you can afford it, it is a wonderful addition to your trip.  It allows you the opportunity to be in the photos with your kids and have professional photos of your family vacation.  For a mom who ends up being the one who is always taking photos of the family, it was great to be able to actually bet in the photos instead of behind the camera!  Disney has added SO MANY areas for you to get photos that it really isn’t necessary at all to bring your camera, but of course as most people probably do, we brought a camera too! At the end of our week long trip we ended up with over 400 photos from Disney PhotoPass plus all of the photos & videos from our cameras.  If you don’t know about Disney’s PhotoPass service, check out more about it here.

We also took advantage of Disney’s park-hopper option on our tickets.  This means we were able to go into multiple parks in one day.  We like this idea because you just never know what is going to happen on your trip and also when you may be able to get reservations for particular restaurants you want to eat at.  Park-hop option allowed us on day one to visit Animal Kingdom in the morning, go  back to our hotel, eat lunch, nap, and then go to Epcot in the evening for dinner and fireworks.  We had dinner in Germany at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall where we got a chance to meet Ariel, Snow White, Belle, Cinderella, and Mary Poppins at the Princess Storybook Dining experience.  Sophia still talks about this dinner because Mary Poppins taught her how to pinkie swear.  That evening we then popped in to visit Elsa and Anna and had a quick meet and greet, less than a five minute wait (seeings as we went around 7:45pm).

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The next day we had a full day at Magic Kingdom which included a character lunch at The Crystal Palace.  There we were able to meet all of Christopher Robin’s friends, Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore and Piglet!  We had no idea that Sophia would be so excited to see Tigger, but her face says it all! Those faces are exactly the reason we took her to Disney World this year, we just knew she would have the time of her life!  We also had a lineup of princess meet and greets Fast Passed which added to her excitement.  We were going to end our day at Magic Kingdom, but it was a full day already, so we took the monorail back to Epcot and decided to try to catch some of the fireworks on our way back to the hotel.  Sophia isn’t a big fan of fireworks, the sounds still scare her though she loves to watch them in the sky.  So we watched the fireworks at Epcot for about five minutes before we walked back to the hotel to get ready for bed and another early morning the next day.

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Luckily for us, staying at the Beach Club resort, our day in Epcot allowed us an extra hour to sleep in.  We woke up, had a bite to eat at the hotel and then headed over to Epcot for a meet and greet with Mickey, Minnie and Goofy.  We were happy to find that this meet and greet was indoors (most of the meet and greets we came across were indoors out of the heat, with Pocahontas and a few others being the exception during our trip).

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From there we rode Frozen Ever After in Germany and met Mulan in China! After that we popped into the stores to take a break from the heat where Sophia decided to spend some money (Disney gift cards she got for her birthday) on a Goofy hat.

We slowly made our way over to Mickey’s Garden Grill.  This restaurant turned out to be one of our favorites.  It’s not flashy or super busy, but was perfect.  The entire restaurant rotates around the central kitchen area and the characters come around to each of tables.  This gave us the perfect opportunity to get the characters to sign Sophia’s autograph book (or “color in my book” as she put it). We also got the cutest photo of Mickey Mouse putting Sophia’s shoe back on her foot like Prince Charming haha.  It had fallen off while she was getting out of her chair to give him a hug and take a photo.

We ended our night at the Polynesian resort at the Disney’s Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show.  It is amazing and the food is absolutely fantastic!  Sophia isn’t always one to try a bunch of different foods, but she really liked everything we had.  I think she liked the idea of being able to serve herself from our family-style setting. I recommend making sure you arrive at least 20 minutes early (give yourself at least an hour if not longer to get from your location to the dinner show because you have a walk from the main building of the resort to get to the location of the show).

The next day was spent at Hollywood Studios.  While it was probably the least geared towards kids Sophia’s age, we still managed to find quite a lot to do.  She met Daisy and Donald Duck, Olaf, Sofia the First, Jake, Doc McStuffins, etc.  We had lunch at Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater which is always good fun.  Sadly the way they seat, its only two across, which meant that Sophia had to sit in a highchair next to us, or one of us would have had to sit by ourselves.  However it worked out just fine with her to the side, but I would have loved for her to actually be able to sit in the car with us (next time I guess!).  We ended the day eating at one of our favorites, the 50’s Prime Time Cafe.  While the food is decent, nothing over the top fabulous, the vibe and setting is enough to make you want to come back time and time again.  I can still remember being 6 years old myself and my waitress asking me if I washed my hands and what color the soap was, haha!

The last park day we decided to go back to Magic Kingdom again.  It is after all the park that is most geared towards the youngest Disney fans.  Before we went to the park however we popped into the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa to have a character breakfast at 1900 Park Fare.  Here she had the opportunity to see Mary Poppins again as well as meet the Mad Hatter, Alice (in Wonderland), and a few other friends.  Reminder, make your reservations for all meals (especially character meals) as far in advance as possible, they book up super quick!  Also when you are picking your meal plans, remember that you can use your plan to cover character breakfasts.  If you child is under two this 1900 Park Fare breakfast is great because it is buffet/family style which means you child can pick from your plate without having to pay separately for them.

After the breakfast we finally made our way to Magic Kingdom for some more Princess meet and greets and dancing in front of the castle 🙂 We went on a few rides (It’s A Small World, Under The Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid, Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, etc).  We actually ended up staying the rest of the day, popping into Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe for dinner before making our way to the buses to head back to the hotel.  We managed to get our the park just as the fireworks started.  Not what most people would do, but given Sophia’s distaste for the sounds they make, we figured it would be best to watch from afar and so we were able to see them as we waited in line for the bus.

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Although our stay was 7 days/6 nights, we opted for 5 day park passes because we didn’t want to pack too much into our trip, especially on the day we arrived and day we were leaving.  This worked out perfectly because we took the day we arrived to get settled and also to pop into Disney Springs to take a look around and have dinner while planning out our days.  The last day we left extremely early in the morning for the airport (again via Disney’s Magical Express) so clearly we wouldn’t have been able to visit any of the parks that day.  Perhaps when the kids are older we would stay later and pop into some of the parks before we left, but this time around we wanted to make sure we got back in time for lunch and Sophia’s nap and for her to have a normal nighttime routine at home.

It’s hard to say what I think would be the best age to take your kids; I think it is really a personal decision and choice.  We wanted to wait to take kids to Disney World until they were able to walk and talk and also when we had a feeling they would do well with meeting the characters.  We wanted to make sure of this because we felt when a child is able to speak, they can at least in some capacity tell you what they are feeling, so it helped a lot in Sophia’s case with managing the amount of potential meltdowns that happened because of meeting characters and from having a schedule that was disrupted from the usual everyday she was used to.  That all said, I couldn’t recommend Walt Disney World more for a family vacation.  As I have said numerous times before, I HIGHLY recommend staying at a Walt Disney World Resort hotel for all of the advantages it provides, as well as picking up the park-hopper option on your park passes and adding Disney’s PhotoPass as well.

If you ever have any questions about Disney World or their resorts, you can always reach out to me or check out Disney’s Mom’s Panel where they have answered a ton of questions and you can even submit questions as well.

                                                                                 xox, Marie

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