I grew up in Florida with the distinct pleasure and privilege of having a variety of theme parks at my disposal. My parents often bought an annual pass to one of the entities — one year, we might do the Busch parks, another Disney, maybe Universal the next. And until I left the state after college in 2008, theme parks were a pretty memorable part of my youth. Disney, Universal, the Busch parks, I love them all.
Over the years, Ive stood in so many lines, waited for so many rides; I’ve bonded with friends, studied for tests, flirted with cute boys, pretended to be a French foreign exchange student to practice my speaking. The first time I saw Nsync perform just happened to randomly be at Epcot, on the day of our 8th grade field trip (you can bet your ass that our group rushed through the scavenger hunt assignment to make it to the stage in time for their concert and it was the greatest day of my 14-year-old life at that point).
I’ve celebrated birthdays and taken field trips and made sure out of town visitors got in their fun. In high school, we’d sometimes jaunt over to Tampa after school (and one time even played hooky) to ride Montu or Gwazi before heading home to do homework. During my first two years of college in Jacksonville, I would even make a quick pitstop at Universal on my way back home to St. Pete, getting in a few quick rides before doing laundry for free and spending the weekend with my family.
A theme park was a place that, as kids, we could practice some autonomy and independence, running to rides that our parents or chaperones didn’t want to go on or agreeing to meet in front of the castle at a certain time. Going to theme parks always felt exciting yet comfortable, thrilling but safe, a place our parents let us run wild and where we could test the limits of our bravery (never going on Sheikra again I can tell you that!).
As I got older, my love of theme parks evolved; not only do I find them a fun way to spend some time, but I am also fascinated by the logistics, engineering, and management of a theme park. (My favorite computer game of all time is Roller Coaster Tycoon 3, and I am a big fan of the console edition of Planet Coaster!) Theme parks are massive, they are complex, and the good ones are so immersive that you feel as if you’ve left the regular world and ended up in another portal where anything is possible: where you can watch the traumatizing mating rituals of giant tortoises followed by a thrilling escape down the river rapids, where humans can pilot space ships and soar through alien planets, where you can experience something new or unexpected.
(If you have not yet watched the Imagineering Story or Behind the Attraction on Disney+, do it! Yes, they’re basically big promo pieces for Disney parks, but these docuseries are also detailed and contain historical footage dating back to the 50s. Fascinating and insightful! You’ll have a better understanding of the sheer cost of running and managing a theme park.)
Consider this a long rambly way of saying that despite the known annoyances of theme parks (crowds, lines, heat, people, the cost), I love them deeply. So Ive been eager to take my own kid to a theme park, to pass along the same appreciation for immersive storytelling and unique experiences.
Some might argue that 3.5 is too young to take a kid to a theme park, but I disagree. You’re never too young to travel or to put yourself through new and challenging experiences. That’s how you build a foundation for dealing with life’s complications. But more on that later!
Let’s get to what you actually care about: WHAT DID WE DO AT DISNEY WORLD?!
- Day 1: Fly to MCO and get checked in to our condo
- Day 2: Magic Kingdom for all
- Day 3: Non-Park Day for Group A + Universal for Group B
- Day 4: Animal Kingdom for Group A + EPCOT for Group B
- Day 5: Non-park relaxing day for all
- Day 6: Disney Studios for the big kids
- Day 7: Travel day
What worked: spacing out the fun; only doing 2 parks with the kid; not trying to force everyone to have fun together all the time
What didnt work: When planning our first family Disney palooza, I didnt want to burn us out by planning to do TOO MUCH. And yet, even building in a couple non-park days, I think we maybe tried to do too much because we squeezed in a lot of non-park fun that contributed to our fatigue. Next time I would do something like: Travel Day, Park Day, Non Park Day, Rest Day, Park Day, Non Park Day, Rest day, Travel Day.
Who went on this trip
About a year ago, I invited our closest friends and family on this Disney Palooza, and in the end 9 of us made it down to Florida:
- Me, my husband, and our kid
- My parents (though my dad triple booked himself and had to leave for London in the middle of the fun)
- KP & C: Two of my besties, my sisters from other misters, and Skyler’s aunties
- T & A: two of our best friends and Skyler’s backup guardians in the case of our demise
And yes, I requested that everyone wear Disney-themed shirts for the day the whole group went to Magic Kingdom 😀 Of course, I made sure Justin, Skyler and I had Disney shirts for every park day haha.
Where we stayed
We did not stay on Disney property. As much as I wanted to, I could not justify the cost for such a large group. Instead of trying to cram people into a bunch of expensive hotel rooms, we opted for a more affordable 5-bedroom condo at the Storey Lake Resort that we rented through AirBNB. $1200 for the week for nine people versus at least $200/night for a hotel room per couple. Even if we’d gone with the more affordable family suite at the Art of Animation, which sleeps four adults semi-privately, we’d have needed at least 2 if not 3…. and they were priced at $550/night at the time of booking.
The Storey Lake Resort was nice, if bland and cookie cutter. Very beige. Very tidy. But with an onsite pool house with pools, a splash pad, a lazy river, a hot tub, beach volleyball, and putt putt! The condo was updated, clean, spacious, and came with a private plunge pool that we all enjoyed resting our aching feet in at the end of the day. The resort was about 15-20 minutes from WDW property, and our group had two cars with us making transportation relatively painless.
What We Did: Theme Parks
We got a late start this day which did not set us up for success, and we experienced some frustrating technological challenges and mixed information from cast members that put everyone on edge at the beginning of our day, but once we finally got inside the park, we had a nice time.
Rides & Attractions:
- The monorail (from the parking lot to the entrance)
- The People Mover
- Tomorrowland Speedway
- Mad Tea Party
- Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid
- a circus-themed splash pad
- It’s a Small World
- Space Mountain
- Pirates of the Caribbean
- The ferry (to parking lot)
I was so pleased that my son adored the People Mover, just like I did as a kid. The Tomorrowland Speedway was much slower and harder to steer, and the Mad Tea Party was more nauseating than I remembered. The lines of the older, classic rides at MK felt longer due to the lack of theming, so when we got in line for the Journey of the Little Mermaid, we were pleased to have the narrative begin as we waited in line and relieved to have the shade of the grotto. This was a nice calm ride, great for both olds and little kids. Skyler wanted to spend the most time at the splash pad we found near the Barstormer, and it took 8 adults a lot of time to catch and convince Skyler to leave. We did make it on two more slow boat rides, which Skyler seemed to enjoy immensely, both classics: It’s a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean (though I dont think he has *any* context for what the heck a pirate even is). And the big kids went on Space Mountain, because we needed some thrill in our lives, and it held up! Tons of fun.
We missed a LOT due to crowds and lines. We did not use the Genie+ lightning lanes, though now I understand that you can’t successfully do much of these parks without it. We would definitely buy that next time. I had hoped to go on Splash Mountain before the upcoming re-theming; Skyler had really wanted to go on the Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin to “shoot aliens”, and I’d wanted to try the new Seven Drawfs Mine Train ride and the Jungle Cruise (since I have never ridden that one and recently watched the cheesy movie), but alas.
We didn’t see any parades or any shows. We didn’t see any characters (and I actually only saw two walking around at any point, but you can no longer just go up to them to take photos; you have to get in line). And we only saw the fireworks from the ferry. But we took a TON of photos.🙂
Magic Kingdom looks the same as I remember but a lot of the sheen has worn off. The crowds just really put a damper on everything. I cant remember going when it ever that crowded before. Im bummed that we missed some of the classics and more thrilling rides (ole Thunder Mountain, how I miss you) but I could not justify waiting over 80 minutes to go on any of them.
Especially when the lines of so many of them are boring and hot, compared to the newer more immersive ride lines; I think this is something Universal learned from Disney and does more uniformly across their parks: they try to entertain you from the moment you enter the line so that’s when story of the ride begins. Disney’s newer rides and attractions do this very well, which makes the older rides pale in comparison.
Skyler had no idea how much we missed since this was all brand new to him; he was honestly content to be pushed around most of the time. Next time, I don’t think I would go back to Magic Kingdom unless the capacity was cut by half or if we attended a special event such as Mickey’s Halloween Party.
This was my first time going to this park, despite it having opened when I was in high school. I loved it! The crowds were bad but seemingly better than on Monday at Magic Kingdom; the weather was cooler and the park was covered in so much shade so we didnt get as hot as quickly; and it was just beautiful! Even though we didn’t get to go on many rides, and again we missed out on some of the Big Ticket Items, those of us who went to this park agreed it was our favorite of the week. Would absolutely go back! I felt like we barely scratched the surface.
Rides & Attractions:
- Na’vi River Journey
- TriceraTop Spin
- The Boneyard
- Expedition Everest
- Kilimanjaro Safari
- Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail
- Avatar Flight of Passage
We missed a lot but to be honest, we didnt really know what was there since we weren’t as familiar with this park. Everything we did see and do was awesome though. Im disappointed we didnt get to go on the little train to Rafiki’s Planet Watch, where there’s a petting zoo (two of skyler’s favorite things: trains and animals), and I wish we’d done the safari at a different time of day.
But the rides we did were fantastic. Expedition Everest was a ton of fun for the big kids. The Boneyard, a massive 3-level industrial-esque playground that connected to a big sand pit where you can dig for fossils, let Skyler run around like a mad man for an hour in a safely contained area with a single entrance/exit. The Na’vi River ride was stunningly beautiful and a lovely long peaceful journey (I kinda wanted to do yoga afterwards).
The piece de resistance had to be the Avatar Flight of Passage, a more thrilling and fantastical successor to Epcot’s Soarin‘. This ride was not only gorgeous and unexpected, but was a technological marvel; my face hurt from smiling when we left. In general, the Pandora land was my favorite immersive experience; I would say the level of theming and detail matched Galaxy’s Edge. Pandora ranked higher for me simply because the world exuded this zen-like peacefulness and I felt like I was in the most luxurious of faraway alien planets, whereas Galaxy’s Edge is very industrial and grungy and you know the stormtroopers could walk by at any moment.
All in all, I was impressed by this park. Next time, I’d like to give this park two full days. The park closed at 7 so we didnt get to see it at night, and we heard from many people how glorious it is at night. Again we didnt see any characters walking around, except for this really unique tree-like dancer on stilts that was fantastical and beautiful. I wish we’d gone to a show or two, and gotten closer to the Tree of Life (which was stunning). Pandora was the coolest immersive area that we saw all week, and none of us care a single iota about Avatar; but being in that land completely transports you to a lush alien planet. The engineering in that area is so awesome!
Our final park day was just for the thirty-somethings, the big kids. My dad had already departed for London, and Skyler stayed home with my mom. Though we probably got out earliest start and had our most successful ride day, it was a day of frustrations and challenges due to heat, insane crowds (worse than the previous days), and my anxiety. But things ended up working out thanks to our lightning lane passes and my DAS pass (more on this in an upcoming blog post), and we rode every single ride that we cared about.
Rides & Attractions:
- Star Tours
- Rock n Roller Coaster
- Lightning McQueen’s Racing Academy
- Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular
- Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run
- Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance
- Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
- Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway
This park….. needs a lot of help. While Galaxy’s Edge is immersive and detailed, it’s not enough to redeem a park that has no clear unifying theme, provides zero shade or sun cover, and has a clunky traffic flow that forces you to backtrack. This was the smallest park but I somehow had the most steps that day.
Both of the new Star Wars rides were technologically advanced, perhaps even edgy (considering how often they broke down, especially, ha). Rise of the Resistance was particularly engaging with the addition of cast members leaning into their character roles as you’re guided throughout the attraction. I loved the use of gamification and interactivity in Smugglers Run; really impressive that they could create a ride where the user has so much influence on the experience. They were both enveloping and captivating, utilizing a mix of ride technologies to transport the riders into the narrative. Both of them were very well done and provided unique theme park experiences. I’m really glad we rode them!
Even though the rides at this park include two of the most game-changing technologically advanced theme park rides in the world, there was not a single ride that did not experience *multiple* closures and breakdowns that day. We wasted and lost 45 minutes in line for one only to have it close for a long period of time. By the time we’d make it over to another ride, it would be closed due to tech problems.
The other rides were all good or really good, though we were disappointed at the end to find out the Lightning McQueen Racing Academy was NOT a ride. Why would you build a CARS themed attraction called “Lightning McQueen’s Racing Academy” that supposedly teaches guests how to race on a simulator and then NOT LET THEM RACE? Mind boggling choice there by the Imagineers. But I will give huge props to the light projection effect on the star; I really believed that was Lightning McQueen on stage. Tower of Terror was just as much fun as I remembered, as was Star Tours, though the updates definitely helped keep it relevant. The Rock n Roller Coaster was great, and the Runaway Railway was super cute! Indiana Jones was just as cheesy as I remembered, and it ran kinda long; can’t say I would sit through that again.
I would not go back to this park unless it underwent some serious renovations, and limited capacity by half. It was just not worth it.
What We Did: Non-Park Fun
There is enough to do for free or very cheaply within the ~40 square miles of WDW property without ever stepping foot in a theme park — and to be honest, I could see us returning for a hotel/non-park vacation before attempting the parks again; our non-park days were fun and far less stressful (and way cheaper) than park days. If you need more non-park ideas, check out what we did during our babymoon and read on for what we did on the Tuesday and Thursday of our Disney Palooza.
Lounging by the Pool
The place we stayed provided some lovely on-site entertainment, so we spent two afternoons poolside at the Storey Lake Resort Hideaway Club. On our arrival day, a few of us had to kill some time before we could go into the condo, so we changed into our swim attire and relaxed for a couple hours. And on the Thursday of that week, after a lazy morning around the condo, we all went to the pool to get some vitamin D and enjoy some non-crowded fun. We even convinced my son to get in the water!
The Skyliner Hotel Crawl
My husband and I did the monorail pub crawl in 2019, and the Skyliner was not yet open. So we were psyched to not only check out some of the other hotels but also a new mode of transport. It did not disappoint! The Skyliner gondolas are spacious, airy, solid and safe feeling, very smooth and peaceful. Skyler said the “buckets” in the sky were his favorite part about the week, ha!
Quick disclosure: We got a late morning start and only had a few hours to explore since the husband and I had early bird dinner reservations at Paddlefish in Disney Springs. The only reason I made us a reservation was because all of the advice blogs I read and the friends I asked about it told me we NEEDED reservations to eat anywhere, and the only times available were 4:45 or 9:30 pm. So all of that to say, we had less than 5 hours to do this Skyliner hotel crawl and easily could have filled 8 hours.
Starting Point: Park at Hollywood Studios (Cost $25)
You can’t park for free at any of the hotels unless you have a dining reservation or are staying on property. So we chose to pay to park at Hollywood studios for simplicity.
First stop: Caribbean Beach Resort
Lovely hotel grounds with nice landscaping and what looked like a fresh paint job. We found a cool playground but Skyler was feeling a little clingy and was more interested in finding the splash pad. The adults wanted drinks and we found the pool bar right next to the splash pad. Skyler was so excited to change into his swim trunks and jump in with all of the other kids. It wasn’t too crowded, so we found lounger chairs with umbrellas pretty quick, and parked ourselves where we could watch him burn off a lot of energy. We stayed for over an hour though we could’ve easily spent many hours there.
Second stop: Art of Animation Resort
(optional add on: Pop Century Resort)
If we’d had more time, I would’ve insisted we check out both of the ‘budget’ hotels because I’ve heard good things about Pop Century, but I knew Skyler would really dig the animation one. Of course, we were approaching nap time — not that my son sleeps for us, but he certainly does get crabby for a few hours until his second wind kicks in — so he was less enthusiastic than I had anticipated but he did seem to think the Radiator Springs area was pretty cool. (Heck, I dont even like those movies, and I thought it was really well done!)
Next, we meandered over to the Finding Nemo pool and splash pad to spend another hour or so, relaxing poolside. A few more cocktails and some resting in the shade made for a nice afternoon. We kinda rushed off past the very cool playground that Skyler really wanted to play at so we could check out a third destination and I was hoping he would snooze a bit in his stroller. We will definitely go back to this hotel — and if we go just the three of us, I would totally book the cheapest room possible to stay here. It’s worth it, being on the Skyliner path!
Third stop: Epcot international gateway to walk over to the Boardwalk
First off, I never knew there was an entrance to Epcot in the middle of the world showcase. Mind. Blown.
Secondly, it’s very convenient access not only to the park but to the nearby hotels. You can take a ferry or walk over to the Boardwalk (an extension of the Boardwalk hotel) which I’d read good things about. After walking around for a while, though, we decided it must be more exciting at night; a lot of things seemed closed and it was just… kinda boring? Very cute though. And hey, we saw a bald eagle!
One place def worth checking out if you find yourself at the boardwalk is AbracadaBar, a magic-themed bar with decent drinks and a super fun ambience with lots of easter eggs.
Optional Add: Riveria Resort
We just didnt have the time to spare to spend any time here, and to be honest I dont know that we missed much. It looks pretty, but kind of basic compared to the othres on the Skyliner trail.
Justin and I had a child-free date night at Disney Springs on Thursday, our second non-park day. As mentioned earlier, we made reservations at Paddlefish, which we had really enjoyed on our previous trip. Of course, our reservation was stupid early so when we got there, no one was there. We realized the bar was totally empty and we never get to sit at the bar anymore due to the child so we told the hostess we would just go sit over there. You should have seen the look on her face! We blew her mind. “You mean…. you DONT. WANT. a TABLE?????? ” She was absolutely flabbergasted. Hilarious.
The bartenders were super friendly and chatty if we felt it like. One of them had just started working for Disney three months earlier and had clearly consumed all the koolaid. He, his wife, and their baby just moved from Miami to Celebration and was more than happy to share all of his favorite things to see and do on property. We would have needed a few extra days to cover it all!
The food was delicious; I had some mahi mahi that really hit the spot. After dinner, we took a long stroll around the Springs, checking out the shops and people watching. I even found a new sun hat! We also enjoyed a round of adult beverages at the Indiana Jones-themed bar, Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar. Totally dug the decor and immersive feel of this spot and we were surprised at how uncrowded it was; we didn’t have to wait for a table at all. Would totally check this spot out again.
Despite the challenges and frustrations of the week, we all had a GREAT time. Lots of memories and inside jokes to cherish. We only took 2000 photos collectively (she says sarcastically) and definitely learned some important lessons for our next visit, which I’ll be posting about soon! Skyler had a ton of fun, being surrounded by all of his favorite people and getting to share new experiences with us daily.
Will we return? Yes, but not for several years. I think Disney has a lot of kinks to work out of its current park experience. I know the pandemic hit hard and they’ve tried to make up for lost revenue, but to their guests’ detriment. Capacity has got to be capped. When the lowest wait times are 45 minutes at best and 80 at worst, the money you’ve spent to be there can feel wasted and the experience is frankly demoralizing.
Some of our friends went to Disney this week, and gave me a great idea for next time: they went to the special Halloween party event. For a little more than the price of a regular park ticket, you get access from 4 pm to 1 am, plus special shows and trick or treating…. they were literally walking on to rides. Now that is the way to do it! So I could see our next visit being a twist on the traditional Disney trip with tickets to a special event or focusing only on one park, stay at a mid or low level hotel on property, and taking advantage of all of the other free and cheap stuff to do. That way we can be surrounded by the vibes, have access to great dining and customer service, and save some money and sanity.
What’s YOUR favorite Disney park? Favorite Disney ride at WDW? Which hotels have you stayed at? What non-park fun have you experienced? What would you do again and what would you avoid next time?