disney world entrance shutterstock

Disney World Advice for the Non-Disney Person

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Novelist Junot Diaz once said, “The boardwalk was where all of New Jersey came together, where New Jersey, for better or worse, met itself.” Visiting Disney World this spring with my husband and my two daughters, I thought that perhaps Disney World is where America comes to meet itself.

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Everyone knows Disney people. They go to the parks all the time, join vacation clubs and buy into timeshares in Orlando, and go on Disney-themed cruises. I don’t consider myself one of the Disney people, although, to be fair, maybe all of us are Disney people, at least to some extent. Even if you’ve never been to any of the theme parks, it’s hard to have missed the movies, the television shows, the music…it’s all somewhat inescapable as a cultural phenomenon.

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So if I’m (mostly) not a Disney person, why have I been to Disney World repeatedly over the years? Well, first I was a kid, then I was a young adult on spring break, and now I have kids. You might end up there if you’ve got a conference in Orlando, or if one of your enterprising relatives plans a family reunion, or if you marry into a Disney family, or if someone invites you to a wedding there, or because your kids beg you to go and it seems like an American rite of passage.

If you’re a diehard Disney person, you don’t need my advice. But if you’re not, and you’re heading that way…you just might appreciate some travel tips.

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disney world highway sign shutterstock

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Disney’s Magical Express is neither magical nor an express. It is, however, quite useful, and if you’re flying into Orlando International Airport and staying at one of the Disney resort hotels, you will find it rather convenient: when booking your travel, sign up for this free service, and you will have the benefit of their shuttle bus from the airport, and your bags will meet you later that day at your hotel room. (Perhaps it is magical, after all…it does spare you the agonies of baggage claim, taxi service, and car rental. And you can watch some cartoons on the way.)

For further convenience, you can download the “My Disney Experience” app on your phone, which will then seamlessly connect you to your hotel reservations, your dining reservations, your GPS location within the parks, and so on. Very helpful, albeit Big Brother-ish.

Yes, dining reservations…they do come in handy, and some places fill up months ahead of time. If you are a planner, you can not only schedule your meals out ahead of time, but you can avail yourself of FastPass, which allows you to reserve rides and attractions (and character greetings, good spots for watching parades and fireworks displays, and pretty much all popular entertainment options), up to three per day, ahead of time, no waiting on lines.

And you will also want, if you are staying at one of the resorts, a MagicBand (you can choose the color), which is the key to your hotel room, and the way to use your FastPass,  and which can be linked to your credit card to make purchases, and can also be used to link photos of you taken by the Disney photographers (available, like everything else, for a price).

It all does seem rather complicated, I realize. To further complicate matters, you have the option of using the Disney Dining plan during your stay, which does provide discounts, but also provides, in my opinion, far too much food, far too much dessert, far too many snacks, and insanely large refillable caloric beverages. (I did say that Disney World is where America meets itself…America, you will observe, eats far too much and drinks gallons of soda.) I prefer to pay as I go and only order what I actually want to eat and drink.

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It is possible to eat rather well in Disney World. We recently stayed at the Bay Lake Tower (attached via sky bridge to the more iconic Contemporary Resort, and considerably less expensive, although no bargain) and at the Contemporary there were several restaurant options. The food at the Contempo Café is pretty dire, although it will do for feeding everyone breakfast before hitting the parks. Chef Mickey’s is better, although not by much, and is more expensive. But you don’t eat at Chef Mickey’s for the food… you go there to meet Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto, who make their rounds and provide photo ops, autographs, and genuine delight for the kids in your party. The California Grill, at the top of the Contemporary, is actually quite good, although more than a little pricey. I recommend, if you are going to spend the money, a table with a good view and timing it so as to see the nightly fireworks display at the Magic Kingdom, which is rather spectacular when viewed from above.

There are other fine restaurants to be found: Le Cellier Steakhouse is in the Canadian Pavilion at Epcot and is quite good…an intimate setting, gracious service, and tasty food. I have never been, but have heard that Monsieur Paul in the French Pavilion is excellent…perhaps I will make it there on my next (inevitable) trip. I also recommend Sanaa, which is a bit of an Indian/pan-African fusion spot at the Animal Kingdom Villas. This is one for daytime dining, because you will see giraffes and zebras and ostriches and other such beasts roaming around outside—and if you’re not heading to Kenya or Tanzania in the near future, this may be the closest thing you’re going to get to it. The Tutto Gusto Wine Cellar is a nice place to spend some time in the Italian Pavilion in Epcot, with an excellent wine list and decent small plates and pasta dishes. For more formal Italian dining, you can seek out the Il Mulino outpost at the Swan. (All of this will be quite costly, but as everything about the entire trip will be costly, you may as well eat well.)

At my older daughter’s insistence, we ate at the Be Our Guest restaurant (the Beast, as in Beauty and the Beast, is the host at this enchanted castle). This one is only recommended for Beauty and the Beast superfans, who will enjoy the rose hologram, the opportunity to meet the Beast in person, and the beautiful ballroom. We did try the famed “gray stuff” which was, if not delicious, certainly acceptable. (The chocolate dessert was better. The wine was also nice.)

At Disney Springs (the shopping and dining area that you don’t need a theme park ticket to enter), we ate at T-Rex, for the benefit of my younger daughter, a four-year-old dinosaur enthusiast. It was everything she had ever wanted in a restaurant, with animatronic dinosaurs (and woolly mammoths!) and a kid-friendly menu. For large parties, you can order a volcano dessert, which involves a big portion of brownies and ice cream, and what I’m assuming is dry ice—I didn’t look too closely. There are also frequent “meteor showers”–very noisy and somewhat alarming. If you are going with a four year old, I’d recommend some bar food and beer to take the edge off. (If you are going without a four year old, I’d recommend some therapy.)

Another tip about reservations: if you can only get them at an inconvenient time and it’s somewhere you really do want to go, take the late dining option. If you show up early, they will do their best to seat you, and usually, it works out just fine. This will not work in the reverse. (If you reserve for lunch and show up for dinner…well, you missed your chance.) Another option is simply to go where you want to eat, and see if they can seat you, which often does the trick nicely, although there are no guarantees.

If you’re with kids and would like a night without them, there’s a babysitting service called Kids Nite Out (interestingly, not operated by Disney but by an independent contractor for childcare) which you can hire as needed. Again, it’s not inexpensive, but nothing in Disney World is, really.

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Getting around: if you wish to travel mainly by monorail, you will need to stay at the Contemporary, the Polynesian, or the Grand Floridian, all close to the Magic Kingdom. There is another monorail between the transportation center and Epcot. There are various ferries and water taxis. And there are buses going from each resort to each of the theme parks. If you are traveling from one resort to another resort in a different part of the complex, you will have to go via one of the theme parks. (A Lyft or an Uber is also an option in those circumstances… it may be worth it if it saves you an hour.)

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epcot monorail shutterstockEpcot: Spaceship Earth with monorail

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And lastly, the parks themselves… there is the original, the Magic Kingdom …home of Space Mountain, It’s a Small World, the spinning tea cups, the flying Dumbo rides (now there are two of them, which has reduced wait times considerably), all the rides of Tomorrowland, the Pirates of the Caribbean, the Enchanted Tiki Room, and other such wonders. It’s mostly (not quite entirely) alcohol-free, geared toward families. There are frequent parades and fireworks at night. Main Street has shopping (and a Starbucks), you can feel educated and patriotic at the Hall of the Presidents, and it is fun to be scared (just a little bit) by the hitchhiking ghosts at the Haunted Mansion.

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laura lavelle disney world 1Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom; photo by Laura LaVelle

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Epcot is divided into two parts. The “Future World” explores technology and science (with corporate sponsorships galore). You can visit an aquarium (with a Finding Nemo theme) and talk to Crush the sea turtle, or check out the leaping water fountains at the Journey into Imagination (along with a purple mascot named Figment). You can explore the history of communications technology in Spaceship Earth (the large golfball-like structure you encounter when you enter the park), and so forth. It must be very hard for the creative minds at Disney to make these attractions appealing, as technology changes so fast: what was dazzling in 1983 is very dated now, and the enthusiasm at the end of Spaceship Earth regarding our current interconnectedness seems a bit misplaced with the fractious state of our politics and the newly emerged darker side of social media.

The World Showcase, the other half of Epcot, offers a somewhat Eurocentric world’s fair-like setting with architecture, cuisine, shopping, music, and attractions representing various countries, staffed with young people from Japan, Morocco, France, the UK, Canada, Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, and Italy, as well as a USA pavilion and an African trading post. Many enthusiastic drinkers are on quests to try a beer from every country—unlike in the Magic Kingdom, alcohol is easy to find at Epcot. (Try not to think too much about cultural appropriation when you see Donald Duck in a sombrero. It will only give you a headache. Have a beer, or a margarita.)

Epcot is also home to a variety of special events each year…currently the International Flower and Garden festival is going on, and there are topiaries, flowers everywhere, a butterfly habitat, and small colorful islands with planters that look very much like Yayoi Kusama’s art come to life.

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laura lavelle epcot flower and garden festivalEpcot’s Flower and Garden Festival; Photo by Laura LaVelle

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Animal Kingdom offers a very fun safari ride to see the animals up close, as well as other zoological attractions. They don’t have plastic straws, lids, or balloons in the park, so as to protect the animals. (I rather wish they would institute this policy in the other parks, so as to protect the environment generally. Maybe someday.) You can see some rather talented dancers, singers, and acrobats perform numbers from The Lion King. The whole place has a bit of a colonialist vibe, but less so than it used to, when Camp Minnie-Mickey featured all of the traditional favorites wearing pith helmets.   Being one of the only people left on the planet who hasn’t seen Avatar, I didn’t go and check out the new Pandora attractions—maybe next time.

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Hollywood Studios is the movie-themed park, currently being expanded to include an entire Star Wars area. You can eat at the (quite good) Brown Derby, see the Muppets in 3D in a classic looking theater, take a ride on an Aerosmith-themed roller coaster, and generally celebrate the golden age of Hollywood.

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If it rains, buy yourself a $10 poncho, available at any gift shop. You will look faintly ridiculous (unless you are wearing a backpack, in which case you will look utterly ridiculous), but no more so than tens of thousands of other people. If you want to be extremely stylish, wear a sundress and Havaianas (or a golf shirt and khakis); you will be better dressed than 95% of the people you encounter. Adults aren’t allowed to wear costumes, but headbands with character ears, ridiculous hats, and goofy t-shirts are legion. Young girls (who are almost universally addressed as “Princess”) are often dressed as their favorite heroine. I did see one rather cute boy dressed as a Prince Charming type but more of them seemed to favor pirate garb. Some of the better restaurants have dress codes, but they do not seem to be strictly enforced, for better or for worse.

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Disney trains their employees extremely well. They rarely break character… and I don’t just mean the ones performing as actual characters, but the ones performing as happy ice cream scoopers, cultural ambassadors, street cleaners, waiters, restroom attendants, photographers, and so on, as well. They are almost always pleasant, friendly, patient, and enthusiastic. When once in a rare while the façade drops and you see a flash of real human emotion, be it irritation, snark, or a genuine kindness, it is actually rather jarring.

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I won’t argue with the planners and the Disney people about how much to do or how best to do it. But I will tell you that however much the Disney ethos resists it, you (and your children) will likely be happier if you slow down a bit and allow for some spontaneity. Stop and buy some (overpriced) ice cream and sit in a shady spot. Take a minute to chat with the artist carving the wooden animals and admire his handiwork. Listen to the band playing and clap your hands. Be patient with the kids on marching band or cheerleading field trips. Take pictures of the sights, whatever special events are going on, and the kids meeting the characters. You will be glad to have them someday. Say hello to the young graduates wearing shirts from your alma mater and make small talk about the football program. You can’t see and do everything, even if you try, so don’t try. Enjoy the warm weather. Smile when you see the miniature Cinderella gazing devotedly at her idol.  That’s what it’s all about.

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disney world haunted mansion shutterstockHaunted Mansion Tombstones

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com.

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laura lavelle disney world 2It’s A Small World; photo by Laura LaVelle

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PHOTO CREDITS

Lead-In Image (Disneyland Entrance) Courtesy of Jerome LABOUYRIE / Shutterstock.com;

Disney World Highway Sign Courtesy of Katherine Welles / Shutterstock.com;

Epcot Monorial Courtesy of James Kirkikis / Shutterstock.com;

Cinderella Castle Courtesy of Laura LaVelle;

Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival Courtesy of Laura LaVelle;

Haunted Mansion Tombstones Courtesy of James Kirkikis / Shutterstock.com; and

Signs (It’s A Small World) Courtesy of Laura LaVelle.