When we first began our love affair with Walt Disney World my children were young. We only had two of them then, and my wife had just stopped working. My work days were not your typical banker’s hours, so we could take advantage of the park on weekdays. Ahhh yes, the good old days. Our Annual Passes were of the cheapest variety (seasonal weekday), we stayed in the hotels during the cheapest times, waited in minimal lines, only had to pay for two meals. Worries were few. Life was good. We were Disney Gods.
Of course, no one escapes Father Time. Like the taxman with a vengeance he comes, reaping all you have sown and leaving you with the realization that your loophole has now closed. Time to pay up. Those two, seasonal weekday passes? They are now four of the standard seasonal passes. Buffets? Now we pay for four plates instead of just two. But the most damning change of all? We are slaves to the school calendar just like everyone else. Everyone. In the world. And Brazil is apparently a very big and well-populated place.
So what is there to do? Resign to the fact that if we ever want to see Peter Pan again we will have to give up hours of our lives we will never get back? That we will hear Sonny Eclipse’s entire set before we get our food at Cosmic Rays? Is it all over?
Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell No! Nothing is over until we decide it is! With the immortal words of John ‘Bluto’ Blutarsky strumming on my brain, and a new found love for Fort Wilderness in my heart, I overcame my longing for the days of empty parks and a fatter wallet and not only accepted my fate, but embraced it. Here are a few things that have helped me cope:
1 – Fast Pass + is your friend – Yes, I’m serious. We recently stayed at the campground for two nights over President’s Day weekend, a very busy time of year. According to Touring Plans, the crowd level for the three days we were there was an 8, a 7, and a 7. If you are not familiar with Touring Plans and their crowd calendar then take it from me—that was no Bueno. On the old, dearly beloved system, if you wanted to obtain fast passes for Toy Story Midway Mania you needed to get to Hollywood Studios early and get to Pixar Place fast. Children and the elderly be damned, you were pulling an Usain Bolt right down Hollywood Blvd. in order to have a shot at something reasonable, and then you were trying to figure out what the hell you were going to do for five hours until your fast pass came up. Not so anymore. Our first day we planned on spending some (not a lot) of time at Hollywood Studios. We ate dinner at Trail’s End at a leisurely (perhaps smug) pace knowing that we had fast passes to the only three rides/attractions we wanted to see or do. The same strategy can be employed at all the parks, even with the tiered system. If you are only going for a few days, don’t kill yourself. Accept that some rides you may not get to do, and take full advantage of your fast pass options. Think of them the same way you would a dinning reservation. There may be ten restaurants you really want to eat at for dinner during your stay, but unless you are staying for ten nights, that may not be possible. So you book the ones you really want, and you figure you will try the others another time. The stress is off. You now are guaranteed a good meal at a restaurant you really like without having to go helter skelter to every restaurant hoping to get a table without waiting too long. So goes Fast Pass +. It gives you peace of mind, which makes the crowds seem less daunting.
2 – Take advantage of your dining options – Perhaps you have already decided that you absolutely will have no time for character meetings while at the park. Probably a pretty reasonable decision, especially if you want to go on a couple rides outside of your fast pass + reservations. Well, why not take advantage of character meals then? You have to eat, right? Why not kill two birds with one stone? This can also take a lot of pressure off, especially if you have little ones who desperately want to see characters. This really goes without saying, but you will need to book these meals as soon as they become available. On previously said President’s Day trip we decided last minute we would try to get into a character buffet to surprise the kids. Ehhhh….wrong. It was just on a whim, and we knew there was availability at Trail’s End, so it wasn’t as if we would have starved, but not one character meal was open for day of booking. Book early people.
Now, what if you don’t care so much for characters but you really want to see the fireworks at Magic Kingdom and REALLY don’t want to stake your claim hours before the show. Try booking a dining reservation just before Wishes goes off at one of the Resort Loop hotel restaurants. On a recent camping trip during Spring Break, my wife and I ate at Narcoose’s one night during the show, and O’hana the next. Both places dimmed the lights and piped in the music. Can you feel the stress lifting off your shoulders?
3 – Take advantage of your resort – All of Disney’s resort hotels have tons of activities. Take advantage of them. Don’t like what your resort has to offer? Go to another one. It’s understandable that not everyone can shell out the cost of a character meal, or a meal at O’hana or California Grill, so look for other ways to make up what you will be lacking from the crowded parks. We camp each year for my oldest daughter’s birthday—which happens to be the week of July 4th—without valid park tickets (our APs are blacked out during that time). We stay for three days and never set foot in the parks. Granted, the campground is also busy, but it pales in comparison. We swim, we take the kids for Pony rides ($3.00 per ride) at the Tri-Circle D Ranch, we do activities at the bike barn (tie dying, etc.). We also attend Chip and Dale’s campfire sing along (a free character meeting outside of the park), then go down to the waterfront and watch the fireworks and Electric Water Parade. And as a special bonus, we get to see the 4th of July fireworks spectacular because it goes for the entire week of July 4th, not just the day. We typically aren’t there on July 4th, but if you are there is also a golf cart parade down Ft. Wilderness Trail, which includes characters. All this without setting foot into a crowded park, or paying extra money. So explore the resorts! Each offers something unique and wonderful.
So there you go. Three easy steps to taking the pressure off during busy times. Sure, there are other techniques or tips you can use to hit every ride or maximize your time while in the parks during busy days, and places like the aforementioned Touring Plans is great for helping with that. But that’s not what I’m after when I go to Walt Disney World. My days of going commando are over. I want to enjoy it. Like drinking a good craft beer (some might say a fine wine, but they would be wrong), I prefer to savor every moment inside the arches. If it means I have to bypass certain things, so be it. But by no means does that make it any less of a trip. To the contrary. It makes every trip unique. It makes every trip better than the last. It makes my left eye no longer twitch at the thought of going to Walt Disney World on New Year’s Day. All good things.