For many families, taking a trip to Disney World is not only a fun vacation experience but a rite of passage.
We asked Susan Kelly, owner of Travel Magic, for advice on planning a Disney vacation. An expert in Disney vacation planning for over 15 years, Susan has been recognized by Condé Nast Traveler magazine as a "Disney Top Travel Specialist."
Expert Q & A: Advice from a Disney Specialist
TripSavvy: You've been helping families plan Disney vacations for many years. What is the most common misconception people have about using a Disney vacation planning specialist rather than planning a trip on their own?
Susan Kelly: People think they will save more money planning their trip on their own. It’s not true. Travel commission is a built in cost of any hotel room so travelers can’t get a “net” rate. For example, you can’t say to a resort, “I will make my own bed and fold my own towels so please remove the cost of housekeeping from my room.” When you book a room, that’s all you’ve booked—a room. A good Disney travel planner will add value by setting up all the details around your stay, including character meals, events, Fastpasses and more. Also, a Disney travel planner will know how to crunch the numbers to ensure you are getting the best available price. Believe it or not, there are times when a free dining plan is not as good a deal as a fall discount offer. People hear “free” and think it is automatically the best deal. Not so.
What is the Ideal Age for a First Trip to Disney World?
TripSavvy: Parents with babies and toddlers often wonder what is the best age for a first trip to Disney World or Disneyland. What do you recommend?
Susan Kelly: You might think you should wait because you think your younger children won’t remember a trip to Walt Disney World. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but you will remember it. That should count.
There is an opportunity to save money, as children under age 3 are admitted to the parks for free and don’t pay for a dining plan (but are expected to eat off of adult plates). Also, there are not many places you can easily go on vacation with younger children and feel at ease. Did you know there are baby care centers at each Disney park, complete with private nursing rooms with rocking chairs and feeding areas with high chairs?
Disney will also guarantee connecting rooms for families if there are two adults who want a second room for their children. If that doesn’t send a message to bring the family, I don’t know what does.
That said, if you want to wait until the whole family can ride Space Mountain together, you would want to wait until your children reach 44 inches in height.
Editor's note: Complimentary baby care centers are located at all four Walt Disney World theme parks. These facilities offer private nursing rooms; feeding areas; kitchens with a microwave, oven and sink; plus diaper-changing rooms. In addition, there are baby-changing stations in all bathrooms, including men’s and family restrooms.
How Far in Advance Should We Book?
TripSavvy: I recently interviewed you for a story about the enormous popularity of the "Frozen" character experiences. If a family has a very specific must-do experience, such as a character or dining experience, how far in advance do you recommend booking a trip?
Susan Kelly: If you want to have first choice of everything, you need to get a package on hold at least six months in advance. Right now, the window for meals and events opens 180 days in advance. For on-site guests, Fastpass+ reservations open 60 days in advance. These thresholds can change at any time, so there is another reason to book with a Disney travel specialist. If the reservation policy suddenly changes to eight months in advance, a specialist would be on top of that change and make sure you are accommodated.
Which Disney World Resorts are the Best for Families?
TripSavvy: With over two dozen Disney World resorts, it can be time-consuming for parents to figure out which one is the best fit for their own family. Which resort would you recommend for a budget-conscious larger family of five or six? How about a family willing to splurge on a "wow" experience? What do you think is the most underrated or under-the-radar Disney World resort and why?
Susan Kelly: I like the family suites at Disney’s Art of Animation Resort as they can sleep up to six people and you still get two bathrooms. While it would cost a little more than getting two rooms at a value resort, a suite would provide a functional living room space during the day, complete with microwave and refrigerator. Plus, I like the fact that you enter through an interior corridor rather than from outside.
The best-price option for a family of five would be Disney’s Port Orleans Riverside Resort. You get the added bonus of taking a boat ride from your hotel to Disney Springs, which is just a pleasant thing to do.
For a good value, you can fit six people in the deluxe rooms at the BoardWalk Inn or Wilderness Lodge and that includes full concierge service. This gives you access to a concierge lounge that includes a full continental breakfast, midday snacks, hot appetizers in the evening and wine, cordials and desserts. That can actually save you a lot of time in the morning and be a nice cap off to a long day.
Any of the two-bedroom villas or grand villas would be a splurge for a “wow” stay. You get lots of square footage, a separate tub and shower, the convenience of an in-room washer and dryer along with a full kitchen that you don’t have to clean. You get the picture.
I think Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge is often under the radar. People can get fixated on being on the monorail. But Animal Kingdom Lodge is one sweet resort providing luxury in a unique setting. Live exotic animals abound everywhere, and you can even get rooms with a savannah view. Unique experiences like sunrise or sunset safaris are exclusive to guests at this resort, depending on room category. Sure, you have to take a bus to each of the parks, but you’re not doing the driving and the reward of this experiential resort outweighs that.
Can Larger Families Get a Group Discount?
About.com Family Vacations: For families planning a reunion or multi-generational vacation, are there any preferential group rates available at the Disney parks and on Disney Cruise Line? What is the minimum number of guests needed to qualify for a group discount?
Susan Kelly: Disney Cruise Line stopped doing group rates on their ships years ago. At the Disney parks, you would have to book more than 10 rooms to qualify for a group rate. But honestly, their good promotions will trump that meager group discount anyway.
What are Some of the Don't-Miss Experiences on a Disney Cruise?
TripSavvy: For families taking a Disney cruise, can you offer any tips for getting the most of out of the vacation? What don't-miss experiences do you recommend?
Susan Kelly: I think to fully enjoy a Disney cruise, you should not worry about doing too many shore excursions. They often feel like one big cattle car. Instead, consider the ship to be your destination.
There are countless activities onboard to enjoy. I think the character encounters onboard are outstanding. On my last cruise, Cinderella taught children how to curtsy and bow in the kid’s club. I saw Belle strolling around and she just sat down and started reading a book aloud. Kids and adults were mesmerized. I saw Goofy jogging on deck. You can see when and where the characters are available on your Daily Navigator newsletter, which is now a free app that works while you're onboard.
I also recommend opting for the second dining time. You can enjoy the theater show first and then go to dinner. The wait staff will bring your kids' meals out right away. Shortly after, the counselors do a sweep of the dining room, and any children that want to go into the club will be escorted back. That leaves Mom and Dad the chance to relax and enjoy the rest of their meal. It’s a plus!
I also highly recommend the adults take time to try Palo or Remy, the adult-only dining experiences onboard. They are first-class all the way.