First of all, we chose to bring along a "babysitter". Emily is a family friend of ours (along with the rest of her family) and someone that we know very well and felt completely comfortable having with us (in close quarters) for an entire week! She LOVES my kids like crazy and was beyond excited about the chance to come along with us! We didn't even have to discuss her 'role', as she seemed to just understand that she was with us to help in any way that she could. She did this well! We certainly could have gone on our own, and it probably would have gone just fine, but having Emily with us was worth every penny. Most importantly, she provided an extra pair of eyes to keep track of everyone...more specifically, Truett. She was willing to sit during the times when I wanted to join the family on rides that Tru couldn't go on. We ended up going on almost all of the rides again, so that both Emily and I were each able to get a turn. There was only ONE ride that we really wanted to get Emily on that we were just not able to..and that was "Soarin" at Epcot. We'll have to get her on that one next time:) Emily was helpful by carrying a backpack with extra waters and long sleeved shirts and she pushed the stroller almost the entire time. She sat with (or held) Tru during most of the shuttle rides and for the long ride down got him buckled and unbuckled from his seat as well. Not only was it she helpful, but it was also fun for us to provide this time for her as well...as she has been a faithful and mostly unpaid babysitter for my kids for several years!
Buying Disney tickets and hotel rooms for eight people is not exactly cheap! Because of this, the idea of flying down was impossible. We knew right away that we would be driving from NH to Florida and have been praying about this trip since September. I had never driven farther than Virginia...and never driven more than 4 hours with 5 kids in the van. The trip in the van could not have gone better. We left at 9pm on Friday night and drove through the night until we got to our friends (Matt and Beth) in NC at around 4pm on Saturday. We stopped for gas and food (and used the potty during those times) and otherwise did not have to make any other special stops. The kids were PERFECT...I can't even begin to tell you how quiet and peaceful this trip was. Besides getting through the wee hours of the night, the rest was a piece of cake. We were able to stretch out a bit for the late afternoon in NC and were provided a delicious meal and comfy place to sleep, followed by a great breakfast by our friends and then we were off again by 8:30am on Sunday. We arrived in Orlando by 5:30 or so that evening, after dealing with some heavy rain in Southern Georgia/Northern Florida and being stuck in traffic for quite some time in Daytona. Again, another relaxing, peaceful drive.
The excitement while we approached the Disney sign that you drive under was immeasurable! The second we drove under that sign the "magic" began! The kids were ooohing and ahhhing over the signs on the streets and the anticipation of all of the fun that was ahead of us. Our GPS counts down the hours until the arrival, and after watching a 27 hour countdown, the kids counted down, VERY LOUDLY, the last 10 seconds until we arrived at the hotel on Disney property. It was SO fun. I am no longer anxious about driving long distances with my kids. They were great travelers. Now if only I could get them to get along this well on the .5 mile trip home from school!
We stayed at the "All Star Sports Resort" in the basketball section. The check in was easy and they activated our Magic Bands. (I'll explain those more later). We found our room just fine and got settled in pretty quickly. There were kids swimming in the pool and playing Wii games on a giant outdoor screen next to the pool. Our rooms were nice. Because of our group size, we had two adjoining rooms. They provided just what we needed...beds, showers, sinks and a mini fridge. We did not spend very much time in these rooms! We headed off the resort that night for dinner and then came back for a swim to help them work off some energy after sitting in the car for so long! We had anticipated a daily swim from that point on, but it turned out that this first swim would be our only swim! There was just too much fun to be had elsewhere!
We booked our trip through a friend who works for Guru Travels. I really don't know how you choose or not choose this option, but we had the "fast pass plus" option with Magic Bands. I can't imagine doing it any other way. I saw people with lanyards with tickets and things like that and I just kept thinking about how convenient the magic bands were!
We got to customize our magic bands online using the "My Disney Experience" website and app. The kids chose their band colors and we had fun with using nicknames instead of our regular names on the bands. The names are printed on the inside of the band. The lady at our hotel desk was cracking up over the use of nicknames and said that she'd never seen anyone else do that. I was surprised:) Of course, she just had to ask who "chub chub" was! She got a kick out of all of our nicknames. The Magic Bands are super durable, one size fits all (even Truett), and they are completely water proof. When we got to Disney and got settled into our hotel rooms, we put on our bands and did not let the kids take them off at all during the entire week. We didn't want to have to deal with someone forgetting it..that, and keeping them on made us get used to them. I thought that Truett might give me a hard time about wearing it, but he totally didn't. He kept his on until we checked out on Saturday morning. He has a nice little "magic band tan line" to prove it! (I did see some other moms who wore all of their young kids bands on her own arm, which I thought was a good idea if she was afraid they might take it off).
The bands are programmed to do a lot. First of all, they have a lot of info on them. You use your magic bands to open your hotel rooms. All of the kids bands were able to do this. Mine and Josh's were connected to our credit card with a PIN so that we could use it to pay for anything within the resort! SUPER handy. (I can see why many people would hate this...but Josh and I loved it). He didn't have to pull out his wallet for anything the entire week. The Disney photographers that are around everywhere will take your pic, scan your band and the pics show up on the "My Disney Experience" website to order later if you'd like. This includes all of the photographers at all the characters spots! The Magic Bands also know your fast pass choices (I'll talk about this more later) and info, so that when it's your turn to fast pass, you scan your band to get into the fast pass lane to get on the ride. The bands don't get activated until you are at the resort and are deactivated when you check out. You can also have them deactivated quickly if you were to lose one or something. Because we had fast pass plus, our magic bands also allowed us to utilize the "extra magic hours" at the parks! On certain days, each park opens early or closes late, and only those staying on resort hotels (I believe?) can use the extra magic hours. We loved this time as it was less busy. This was what made it possible for our family to go on the Star Tours ride 5 or 6 times in a row! (That ride is different every time...I'll talk more about rides later too:). Overall, we LOVED our bands. Some of the kids are still wearing them. We were all sad to take them off.
The "Fast Pass Plus" system was awesome! We had a general idea of how this worked, but it wasn't until we got there when we realized just how valuable it is! You can go on the My Disney Experience website way before you go to choose your fast passes for the entire time you are there! They allow 3 fast passes per park and they are KEY! Our travel agent helped us narrow down the things that we would definitely need fast passes for and we chose them a good month before we left. We didn't realize until a couple days in, that you can change them on the My Disney Experience app when you are there..as long as it is the day before. The difference between fast passes and fast pass plus is the magic bands. Without the bands, you have to go to the fast pass stations and get an actual ticket for the fast passes. With the magic bands, all of this info is stored right on them! It gives you a time frame of an hour to get to a ride and use the fast pass. As long as you are there within that hour, you go in the "fast pass" line and usually walk past hundreds of people and, in a sense, cut the line. The fast pass lane sends you past everyone and then merges you at the very end. Unless you actual enjoy waiting in lines for 60-80 minutes for the popular rides, then you MUST utilize the fast pass system. With the magic bands, you just match up the mickey on your band to the mickey on the post and it will recognize your entire group and you get sent through very quickly.
When we chose our fast passes (before we left) we were told which things were typically busy and we went with that. What we found when we were there is that we had NO trouble getting into any of the shows and unless we really wanted great seats to them, using fast passes for them was not necessary. For example, "Turtle Talk with Crush" is one thing that we got a fast pass for, but the wait for that was not any longer without the fast pass. Same thing for things like the Indian Jones Stunt Show. These shows are schedule at certain times of the day and can fit a ton of people, so we never needed to use a fast pass for them. Of course, we didn't always have perfect seats, but we were perfectly happy with what we ended up with. The shows are set up so that you can see well from anywhere. We were there during NH Feb vacation, and the parks were not super busy, so I'm not sure if during busier times fast passes would be more necessary.
I will list the things that fast passes were crucial for by park:
~Toy Story Mania-we never saw this regular wait time under 75 minutes!
~Rockin Roller Coaster-the normal wait for this was always upwards in the 80 minute mark during regular park hours.
~Tower of Terror~I wouldn't recommend anyone going on this ever. But, if you must, the fast pass is handy. Although, we did see regular wait times down to 20 minutes during regular hours, but saw it at 40 to 50 minutes as well. It is possible to get into this ride in under 30 minutes...at least, during a not so busy time of the year:)
~Star Tours~ Like the Tower of Terror, this ride had some decent wait times and then some long ones.
For Hollywood Studios I would choose Toy Story Mania, Rockin Roller Coaster and Star Tours...but that's just me:) We got into the Muppets 3D, Indian Jones Stunt Show and the Beauty and the Beast show just fine without long waits or fast passes. The Fantasmic show at the end of the night wasn't too bad to get into. We got there kind of late and got seats very far back, but it was still awesome.
(I'll talk about how to get into the Jedi Training later)
~Soarin~ The wait for this awesome ride is rarely under 80 minutes. Must get fast pass for this!
~Test Track~ another very cool ride with very long wait times. I would recommend fast pass for this one too! Although, I think that when you fast pass this, you don't get to design your own car, which is part of the fun of this ride. (Maybe another reader can confirm or deny this though). I would not want to go on that ride without making my own car at least once. So, if you fast pass this and you don't get to design your car, you should try to get back on the ride at some point!
Otherwise, at Epcot, the lines were not super long for anything else. You get 3 fast passes anyway, but you could just choose according to what looks fun to you:)
~Kilimanjaro Safari~This is fun, and seems to have long waits.
~Expedition Everest~ our family's favorite roller coaster!
~Kali River Rapids~seems to always have long waits. We did not do this because it was cold.
We fast passed the Dinosaur ride.
We were at Animal Kingdom on a crumby day, so it's hard for me to judge what the regular wait times are. We didn't have any trouble getting on rides that day.
This park is so big that it's hard to decide how to choose fast passes here. It all depends on your family. We ended up going to Magic Kingdom twice, so we were able to fast pass things on the second day that we couldn't get to the first time around.
~Buzz Space Ranger Spin
(Those were the important ones for us on day 1 at MK)
But, the lines for Peter Pan's Flight, Little Mermaid, Winnie the Pooh, Pirates of the Caribbean, Ariel's Grotto were all crazy.
Ultimately, you MUST have the "My Disney Experience" app and another app that is called "Disney World Wait Times". We used these all the time. You can be anywhere and check the wait times for any given ride. This helped us because we could be on one end of the park and see that a wait time was under 30 minutes and we would head there. There are times of the days when most rides have reasonable waits. If you see a ride that has under 30 minutes, consider it a go and get in line right then!! The waits really aren't that bad because they have lot's of things to look at or interact with. If you can get to the parks right as they open and head to the rides with long waits, you can get through them quickly. Or, extra magic hours are key to getting to some of the rides with long waits.
A big deal for those of us with 6-11 year old Star Wars fans, is getting to do the Jedi Training. It is SO worth it...totally fun! They do 8 shows a day (or something like that) and choose 20 kids per show, first come first serve. This is serious business for some! The key (we know this thanks to Beth, our Guru Travel agent) is to get to the gates of the park by 8:30am. The park doesn't open until 9am. We got there by 8:30am and were relatively close to the front of the waiting line to get into the park. Then, you head STRAIGHT to the sign up...which is on the left side of the park..to the left of the American Idol thing. (If you want specifics, message me and I can give you specific directions). We weren't exactly sure, but we just followed the parents who were literally RUNNING (and getting in trouble for it) with their kids who were decked out in Jedi robes. We didn't run, but figured if we followed those people that we were headed in the right direction! Ethan, Luke and Owen were within the first 40 kids in line to sign up. They sign up and then are told what time to come back and what show they are doing. Honestly, it was totally worth the extra effort!!
(We went to Hollywood Studios again for the first half of Friday, and while the majority of people were running to Jedi sign ups, we headed in the opposite direction towards Rockin' Roller Coaster and got on it twice before there were any waits..with no fast passes:)
I talked about breakfast earlier. For lunch and dinner we did only "counter service" meals. This meant that we ate a lot of burgers, chicken and french fries...although, there were a few places where we got pulled pork and tacos:) Honestly, we were happy eating this way. We would not have been able to afford any of the table services places and they would have had a hard time seating all 8 of us without reservations. These places to eat are everywhere! They are crowded and busy, but they do well serving everyone and we never had trouble finding two tables next to each other to sit.
We ate lunch and dinner at the parks each day.
We ate at the following..
~Cosmic Rays Starlight Cafe
~Pecos Bills Tall Tale Inn and Cafe
~Electric Umbrella (the Mac n Cheese burger was yummy...yes, I admit it!)
~La Cantina de San Angel (mexico)
~Flame Tree BBQ
(Because none of us wanted to see another french fry for a long time, we ate at a Waffle House on the way home:)
OUR FAMILY LOGISTICS
We went into Orlando on the first night and bought milk, cream cheese, bagels, granola bars, cereal, bananas, yogurt and nutrigrain bars...which is what we ate each morning for breakfast. We got up by at the latest 7am each morning to get ready and eat. We headed out the door by 8 or 8:30 (depending on our plans for the day) and took the shuttle to whatever park we were headed to. We had our van, but for some reason this was just easier for us. (The shuttles pick you up right out front of the All Star Sports hotel). We considered renting a stroller at the parks, but decided to just go with the umbrella stroller. The reason we chose this is because there is quite a distance between the shuttle drop offs and getting inside the actual park. The umbrella stroller was fine for us for the week. Josh carried a backpack with waters (which was quite heavy for the first part of the day..but he's a tough guy:). I carried a over the shoulder bag with 3 diapers, wipes and various medicine..and the video camera. I would carry it or throw it over the stroller handles. Jessalyn carried her own bag with whatever she wanted and a few waters. Emily carried her bag with her stuff and a couple of waters. (You don't want to have to buy water in the parks!) This worked for us. There is stroller parking outside of all of the rides. There are attendants at most of these parking areas who organize the strollers. You can bring bags on most of the rides, but there were times when we would have to leave them. We never had a problem with that. I tried to keep my bag with the video camera close to me..but otherwise, we didn't worry. There are Disney "cast members" (employees) everywhere.
If it was cool in the morning (like 60's) I would have the kids wear shorts and a long sleeved tshirt type thing. They are less bulky than a hoody, so that they could take them off and stuff them in one of the bags. Then they would have them in the evening as it got cooler. We only went back to our hotel mid day one time..because of rain. Otherwise, we stayed at the parks from open to close! I didn't bring extra close into the parks for anyone. It was risky...but we never ended up needing any extra. We tried to carry as little as possible
I did bring my 'big' camera with me. I honestly went back and forth on this one...but my friend Danielle said "you're gonna want your camera" and I went with that advise. I'm SOOOO glad I did. I would have been kicking myself if I hadn't. Yes, it was a pain..it was heavy on my neck..but it was so worth it. I don't know..maybe it's because I'm a photographer, but the photo ops are endless. I could have taken 1000 more than the 1400 that I took!
Overall, we tried to be relaxed about everything. We had somewhat of a game plan as far as what rides/shows we wanted to make priority..but we didn't have a specific schedule of how we were gonna make it happen. We tried to just enjoy our walks through the parks and take in as much as we could. The kids made lists each night about what they wanted to do the next day and we tried to get it all in. I think we accomplished that by the end of the week.
We had schedule 4 days of parks and then Friday was open. We bought the park hopper pass so that we could go wherever we wanted and it came in very handy! We got rained out of Epcot on Wednesday afternoon, so we called it a day. On Thursday we did Animal Kingdom by later afternoon and headed right back to Epcot for the evening. We got to see the night show and get on the rides that we missed the day before. Then on Friday we decided as a family that Hollywood Studios and Magic Kingdom were the places we wanted to head back to. We spent the morning at HS and the afternoon/evening at Magic Kingdom. (On Thursday night we were able to choose more fast passes for Friday!) Doing it this way allowed us to get everything that we wanted to in before we headed to Universal on Saturday!
Our kids were such a great age to bring. Ranging from age 13 to two made everything fun for everyone! Having a two year old brother made it easy for the older kids to "be kids" and get right into the younger rides and meeting different characters. They were enthusiastic "for Truett"...or so they said:) We all know that they enjoyed it just as much as he did! Truett was able to ride most of the rides...besides the roller coasters. (He was big enough for the Barnstormer though:)
Fast Passes aside...I will list the things that we did an loved. There was only ONE thing that we did that we were disappointed in. Whether it was a show or a ride, besides the "Lilo and Stitch" ride (that is really not a ride) we came out in awe. EVERYTHING is good to do and nothing is lame! I suppose if we liked Lilo and Stitch more, than it probably would have been better but it was just weird.
Unless it says "No Tru" it means that everyone went on the ride. Owen (age 6) went on everything listed here and was totally fine. Obviously, "No Tru" meant he wasn't big enough to go on. ...which is where paying for a babysitter was VERY helpful!!!
~Pirates of the Caribbean
~Mad Tea Party
~Peter Pans Flight
~Under the Sea (little mermaid)
~Big Thunder Mountain (no Tru)
~The Haunted Mansion
~Buzz's Space Ranger Spin
~Monsters Inc Laugh Floor
~Space Mountain (no Tru)
(Splash Mountain was closed)
~Captain EO (totally weird..but slightly cool)
~Living with the Land
~Mission Space (orange) (no Tru)
~Nemo and Friends
~Soarin (No Tru)
~Test Track (No Tru)
~Star Tours (No Tru)
~The Great Movie Ride (could be scary for some younger kids...but Tru was fine. It goes through different movie scenes..some with aliens, some westerns..Indiana Jones etc.)
~Toy Story Mania
~Muppet Vision 3D (my personal fave:)
~Rockin Roller Coaster (No Tru)
~Tower of Terror (Don't believe them...It's NOT fun!!!)
~Indian Jones Stunt Show
~Expedition Everest (No Tru)
~Dinosaur (no Tru) (kinda scary..jump scares..big dinosaurs..but wicked fun)
~Primeval Whirl (no Tru)
~Tricera Top Spin
(I wanted to get all of those thoughts written out before I forgot them!)