Yup, the big one. After having such a great time at Disneyland when our son was in preschool (you can read about it here), we knew we wanted to do Disney World at some point, too. Our opportunity came when our boys were in 6th and 1st grades, and once again I planned it myself. I’m way too OCD to let someone else control our daily vacation schedule, which – with Disney World – you need to do months in advance (including dining reservations!). I know, it’s insanity. But, once you’re there, it IS really nice to have EVERYthing taken care of. All you have to do is show up for your plans, and you can pretty much turn off mom-brain.

Just like planning for Disneyland, if you are doing this yourself you really need to commit to doing your own research. Things change constantly, and you need to read through websites of Disney “experts” to know what the current deals are, when the best time to go is, and the best places to stay. This information will most likely be different than it was 5 years ago, or even 2 years ago. Again, my favorite websites to wade through when planning a Disney park trip are:

  1. Undercover Tourist – this is a great site to purchase your park tickets at the best price, especially if you have no other discounts.
  2. Disney Tourist Blog – these people live Disney. Tons of info on hotels, sample itineraries, planning guides, FastPass strategies, and crowd calendars. They really stay up-to-date on the latest Disney news, too.
  3. Touring Plans – this is only for the most hardcore planner. If you want to get into the serious nuts and bolts of crowd calendars, this is the place to go.
  4. The Dis message boards – I planned all my trips with help from people on these boards. Every time I’ve posted a question, someone has answered within 24 hours – usually less than 1 hour. INVALUABLE resource. The Dis also posts weekly podcasts on the latest news for each park which are extremely informative.

I planned our entire trip using these websites, but rather than relive my research process (which isn’t very fun or interesting to read), I will highlight our favorite experiences below, along with the best tips we found to save money. Maybe something here will help you if you are planning your own trip, and feel free to ask me questions about what I did. The most important thing is to start EARLY – I had to book our hotel a year in advance to get a good deal, and then make certain restaurant reservations 6 MONTHS in advance. You will be able to make your own list of priority experiences and restaurants as you research. There is SO MUCH to do at Disney World; it is absolutely necessary to decide which experiences are most important to your family because you won’t be able to do it all.

Where we Stayed

Watching animals from our balcony at Animal Kingdom Lodge

So this is where I stumbled upon our best money-saving secret! We had decided to stay on Disney property for this trip, but still had a budget to stick to. This meant the “deluxe” level resorts were out. After researching all the different “moderate” level resorts, we landed on Port Orleans Riverside for its cool theming. However, right as I was getting close to booking it, I began reading about renting DVC (Disney Vacation Club) points on the Dis message boards. Turns out you can rent Disney timeshare points from owners, which means you can stay at a deluxe-level resort at a significant discount! You can rent these points directly from an owner, or pay a little more to rent through a company like David’s Vacation Club – going through a company like David’s comes with a little added security. In our case, I couldn’t get the exact resort I wanted for our dates if I went through a company, so I bit the bullet and contacted an owner directly. It was a little nerve-racking, but I made sure to buy my own trip insurance with a “cancel for any reason” policy, which would cover all costs if anything fell through. Through this process, we were able to stay at Animal Kingdom Lodge at almost HALF OFF, the SAME price it would’ve cost us to stay at PO Riverside. I couldn’t even believe it until we got there; it totally felt like we were getting away with something! But everything went smooth as silk, and let me tell you – Animal Kingdom Lodge is AMAZING.

After staying at Animal Kingdom Lodge, I don’t know if we could ever stay anywhere else at Disney World. We walked through a few other resorts during our vacation, and we felt that none of them held a candle to AKL. You truly feel like you are on the African savanna. The unique restaurants there are known to be some of the best in all of Disney World, and the decor and ambience is stunning. You can spend a whole afternoon viewing the authentic artwork displays throughout the halls and enclaves of the resort. If you don’t have a room with a savanna view, there are plenty of pretty little sitting areas – indoors and outdoors – to watch the animals. “Cultural representatives” can often be found in the lobby, playing music from their native countries or entertaining little ones with stories and activities. And of course you can always walk the grounds outside, where staff members will answer your animal questions or give you night-vision goggles to look for zebras and giraffes. You could have an entire vacation at this resort and never even go into the parks – there’s THAT much to do.

This is what the view was like from our room at Animal Kingdom Lodge! Sorry for the poor video quality – old phone!

What we Ate

Lunch at Tusker House

Disney World actually has pretty decent food in the amusement parks, especially at the table-service restaurants. But it is ALL extremely expensive in my opinion…like, take-your-breath-away and clutch-your-chest expensive. You can easily blow your food budget right into the stratosphere if you’re not careful. To avoid this, we kept snacks, cereal, and easy breakfast food in our hotel room. Every morning we would eat a light breakfast in our room before leaving for the parks. We also packed snacks in our backpack (switching off carry-duty), and committed to eating no more than one table-service meal a day. Some days we didn’t even eat one; we got by on quick-service meals and/or snacks. We were so busy having fun that food was more of an afterthought, anyway. Nonetheless, there were some standouts – some of our favorite food experiences were:

  1. Tusker House (Animal Kingdom) – most people will shell out an obscene amount of dough for at least one “character meal” at Disney World. These are the places that have buffets of mediocre food (sorry, it’s a fact) while Disney characters come around to visit tables. This is because we parents will pay just about any price to be able to sit down and have our kids preoccupied with food whilst waiting to meet their idols, rather than sweating bullets on hot pavement while our little cherubs whine “how much longer?” 3,746 times. What I like about Tusker House is that the food is actually good. The safari theming carries through to the menu, so there are some interesting African flavors to try, along with the mac ‘n cheese and chicken standbys for kids. Plus the characters wear cute safari outfits! Pro tip: character meals are usually cheaper for breakfast or lunch than dinner.
  2. Sci-fi Dine-in Theater (Hollywood Studios) – this table-service restaurant is known for its themed seating, which looks like rows of cars at a drive-in. Strange sci-fi clips are played on a big screen in the front, and our kids thought it was supercool. The burgers are good, too.
  3. Be Our Guest (Magic Kingdom) – this place is quick-service for breakfast and lunch, but then does a more expensive table-service dinner where you can meet the Beast. We only did lunch here, and while the food was just ok, the atmosphere here is really something to experience. It’s designed to be the Beast’s castle, with multiple rooms, special effects, and of course the famous rose.
  4. World Showcase (Epcot) – although there are many table-service restaurants in the world showcase area, we had the best time just snacking our way around the “world”. Pastries and crepes in France, pretzels and bratwurst (and strudel!) in Germany, margaritas in Mexico, gelato in Italy; I could go on and on. We ended up cancelling our table-service reservations in Epcot because we stuffed ourselves just hitting the different country pavilions. My kids could’ve spent half a day at Japan’s gift shop, gawking over all the unusual candies and sodas.
  5. Animal Kingdom Lodge dining – we just loved the food here! All of the restaurants, even the quick-service, featured interesting African flavors alongside traditional American dishes. On arrival day, we left the boys at the kids’ clubhouse while my husband and I had an amazing meal at Sanaa (you must do the bread service with all the dips), and on the last day we all had breakfast at the Boma buffet. Another pro tip: Both Boma and Jiko offer culinary tours where a cultural representative or chef explains the culture and cooking styles of the food – with free samples! Yet another fun bonus activity at the Animal Kingdom Lodge.

What we Did

Obviously, you will have your own priorities for attractions and shows based on your family’s interests. I have two boys with zero interest in princesses, so that was one less line we had to worry about – although I think they were a little more smitten by Elsa than they’d like to admit. A few things I would suggest you add to your schedule are: ANY of the parades (they are really cool with neat effects), ANY of the musical shows (we saw Festival of the Lion King and it was fantastic), and a night show on water (my boys loved the huge dragon in Fantasmic!). The fireworks shows at closing are great, too – steps above what you find at other amusement parks.

Festival of the Lion King show
Best part of this afternoon parade is the dragon!

We also had the privilege of experiencing two of Disney’s seasonal events – the Halloween party at Magic Kingdom and the Food & Wine Festival at Epcot. The Halloween party is a hard ticket event, meaning you have to purchase a separate ticket from your park admission. It is also very expensive (big surprise), especially the last few dates at the end of October, which is when we were there. We had to think long and hard about splurging on the party, but in the end we went for it – mainly because I read that many of the rides are walk-ons during the Halloween party. Some people attend the parties for the special snacks, entertainment, character meets, and trick-or-treating, which means fewer people are waiting in lines for rides. And even though the party doesn’t start until the evening, you can enter the Magic Kingdom at 4 p.m. with a party ticket, giving yourself about 8 hours in the park. So to make the most of our budget, we knocked a day off of our park tickets package – we got 5-day tickets instead of 6, and on the extra day we used our party tickets. This worked well and the party was totally worth it! We dressed up as pirates and walked right on the boys’ favorite rides like Splash Mountain and Space Mountain, with no wait. It almost felt like we were at a private party at times, which was an experience we will never forget! The shows and parades were very crowded, however, so if that’s your top priority, keep that in mind. Additionally, I hear these days they sell more party tickets in general, making the entire experience more crowded, and that could be a bummer. For us though, the Halloween party was a highlight of our vacation.

The other special event we did was the Food and Wine Festival at Epcot – no special ticket is needed for this one, but you do have to pay for the food and wine samples. We were there the first week of November and the weather was gorgeous. Perfect for strolling around the world showcase and trying all the different foods – you just have to force yourself not to think about how much cash you’re dropping! We were surprised at how much our kids enjoyed it, too!

Look, Disney World isn’t for everybody. It’s crowded, overwhelming, and exhausting…not to mention the astronomical prices. But it was one of the best trips we’ve ever had with our boys. Our grumpy middle schooler smiled more that week than he had in years, and our first grader was completely star-struck. They still talk about that vacation, and hopefully we’ll get to go back again sometime, even in a post-coronavirus world.