Disney · Travel

5 things to consider when planning a Disney trip.

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Every other summer, our family makes the 20+ hour drive to Orlando to visit Disney World (for road trip ideas, click here).  My husband’s parents have been members of Disney Vacation Club since 1995 and we have been blessed to visit many times over the years.

I am in no way affiliated with Disney nor am I a travel agent, but, after having the opportunity to go so often, I feel like I have a good grasp on realistic ways to have a great time at Disney without spending my retirement money.  Whether you are a Disney rookie or someone who has been in the past, there are tips below which can help when planning your vacation.  We head out in a few weeks and I’ll do a follow-up when we return with anything new we’ve learned.

Also, I apologize in advance for the length of this post.  There is so much to say about planning a Disney trip and I wanted to include everything I thought would be useful to someone.

1.Staying on Disney property

Being DVC members, we always stay on-property.  We have the opportunity to try new places, but we always stay at Old Key West, which is our “home” property.  There are many room options (studio, 1, 2, and 3-bedroom villas) and they are all very spacious. All except the studio include a washer/dryer and kitchen.  The rooms are very clean and are all pretty close to a pool (there are multiple pools at Old Key West).

The Disney pools are all pretty amazing, with most offering some sort of a feature (slide, spray area, etc) and daily activities.  At Old Key West, there are also “neighborhood” pools that are much quieter and allow my kids lots of space to swim without there being much of a crowd.  We always spend our first day (after the 3:00 check-in) at the pool.  This gives us a chance to release some energy from the car ride and to gear-up for parks the next day.

Rumor has it that DVC members can also pool-hop at many of the resort pools.  We have only done this one time as we pretty much love our home pool, but that is a fun extra for vacation club members.

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Also, if you stay on property, you get free transportation to and from the parks and other resorts/attractions.  If you are not staying at a Disney resort, parking is $20+ each day at the parks.

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Waiting for the bus
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Headed to Magic Kingdom

If staying on-property, you also get complimentary Magic Bands.

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I’ll be perfectly honest.  This whole band thing overwhelmed me before we left for our last trip.  It seemed confusing and more planning than I was willing to do.  I was wrong.  The bands are great.  You can link your tickets, FastPass, and photos to the bands.  They also serve as your room key and you can charge things at the Disney restaurants and shops using them.  It is such an easy way to keep everything together.  You control the band through the website and through the My Disney Experience app (more info below).

Disney resorts can be pricey, but the benefits are pretty great.  Other amenities include free wifi, Extra Magic Hours, early access to FastPass planning,  and the opportunity to purchase the Disney Dining Plan.

2. Navigating the Parks

Because we are able to visit Disney so often, we focus on one or two parks a year.  On our last trip, we spent one whole day at Magic Kingdom and hopped between Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom on our second park day.  We enjoy all of the parks (including both water parks), but our favorite is Magic Kingdom and we always plan to spend at least one day in this massive park.

We love to relax on vacation and sleeping in is great, but don’t do it on a park day.  You need to be there when the park opens or you will miss so many opportunities to ride things with not much wait time.  Last time, some family friends came on the trip with us and they didn’t make it to the park until after 10 AM.  I later asked what they rode and they were only able to hit like 5 things before evening.  What?!  We rode 5 things in the first hour we were there.  Get there early and be flexible with your plans.

Many people go with a ride/show itinerary (there are tons available online) and they are afraid to veer from it.  I do think it is smart to go in with some idea of where you want to be at specific times, but if your goal is to get the biggest bang for your buck, you need to be willing to chill a little.  We always start at Fantasyland because we have kids and they love it there.  This year, we plan on doing the Seven Dwarves Mine Train first because that tends to get crowded and have really long wait times and then, honestly, we’ll go to whatever is close and has a short wait–which is where the app comes in handy.

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The My Disney Experience app is, in my opinion, the best thing to use to have a successful trip.  You can manage your Fast Pass (add, delete, change) and dining reservations, see show times, find which characters are out and where they are located, and see wait times for everything in the park.  After each ride, I get my phone out and look at the rides in that specific area and we just head to whichever ride/show is close to us with the shortest wait.  In June 2015, we went to Magic Kingdom on one of the busiest days of the month and our longest wait was maybe 30 minutes.  If we want to stay in a certain “land,” but have a FastPass somewhere else, I check to see if we can change times for that ride.  That doesn’t always work out for us, but it usually does.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed for this trip!

Even though we don’t love waiting in lines, I do make sure each of our kids gets to ride their #1 pick for each park before we leave.  It takes lots of money and planning time to do a Disney trip, so I want my kids to get to visit their favorite thing at least once.  One time we rode Splash Mountain…five times in a row…and I was pregnant.  It was interesting to say the least, but my daughter was happy as that was her favorite. Haha!

3. Eating at the Parks

I’m definitely not a Disney dining expert, but we do eat at the parks.  We have never done the dining plan, but I know many people do and enjoy it.  Normally, we eat a quick breakfast in our room (cereal, breakfast bar, fruit) before heading to the bus stop.  I also usually pack a few small snacks in our cinch sac or small backpack that we take to the parks (granola bars, pbj sandwiches cut up) for the time in between breakfast and lunch. For lunch, we hit up a counter-service restaurant for some good Disney food.  They all offer different things and can be pricey (maybe $10 or $12) so we share two or three meals and call it good.

In the afternoon, we usually take a park break and head back to hang out at our resort pool or nap. We snack a bit there and go back to the parks for dinner, more rides, parades, and fireworks. If you don’t already have dinner reservations, you can use the app or just hit another quick-service restaurant, which is what we normally do.

We all love a good Disney treat so make time to get one (or many!) of those.  My kids love the ice cream bars and sandwiches and I go crazy for a Dole Whip.  I’m not too particular on when we get treats.  Sometimes we get them in the afternoon before we head back to the hotel, but we pretty much always have something around time for fireworks.

Disney drinks can take up a good portion of money we worked hard to save, so we are smart about not buying sodas and bottled waters all day long.  We go to Disney in June and it is hot, so I take some empty water bottles (you can find cute Disney ones at WalMart) and fill them up at water fountains.  You can also get free ice water pretty much anywhere they serve food.

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Breakfast at the Polynesian
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Lunch at Akershus, Epcot

 

Character meals really deserve their own post so I will just say this: they are expensive, but worth it if you want your kids to have some character time.  Also, the food is good.  You should plan to do at least one if your kids are little.

4. Dress Accordingly

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I always applaud people when I see their cute photos and they are wearing nice clothing at Disney.  I’m not sure how they do it.  Again, we go in June and it can be pretty steamy, especially after the afternoon rain showers.  I’m positive you will not catch me in anything with a button or zipper or made out of some non-breathable material.  If I’m at a Disney park during the day, I have on a t-shirt or tank top and athletic shorts.  If you ride Splash Mountain in the morning and have to spend the rest of your day in wet denim, you will not be happy.  Trust me on this.  Get a cute Disney tee and break out your black shorts.  You will be comfortable and still cute.  Promise.

Also, wear tennis shoes.  You will walk so much at Disney.  I tried to wear flip flops once and was mad at myself about halfway through the day.  The kids wear tennis shoes also, unless we are just back for fireworks and are leaving again.

If you MUST wear cute clothing, maybe put those on after a mid-day break.  That is kind of my plan for this year.  I’d like to get some nice pics where my hair isn’t in a messy bun.  We’ll see if that happens…

5. All of the extras

Fireworks and other nighttime shows

At the evening shows, Disney sells all sorts of fun glow-in-the-dark items.  I’m pretty sure I’ve bought a few of these overpriced things in the past.  One year, we saw a smart family pull out their bag of dollar store glow sticks and I watched their kids happily showing off the things that cost them $19 less than what we had.  Guess what.  We take the dollar store glow sticks now.  Haha.  I hit up Target a few weeks ago and got some glow necklaces and bracelets for my kids and nephews.  My kids have never felt like they had something less than the kids who have the expensive glow toys.  Plus, there are always kids around us who don’t have the items either and it gives my littles the opportunity to share because we always have extra.

Souvenirs

We try to be really practical when it comes to souvenirs.  I want my kids to have something to help them remember the experience, but I don’t like them asking for everything they see.  When my oldest was really little, we started them on a souvenir budget.  They take some of their own money, any money grandparents have given them, and a little from us (we save change all year, take it to the bank, and split it into thirds) and that is their souvenir money for the entire trip (including the beach part that comes after Disney).  This eliminates so many problems for us.  If they ask for something, I tell them they have to pay for it.  Enough said.  Sometimes they want a larger item (like the build-a-dinosaur at the T-Rex restaurant), but mostly they just want a cup or some little figurine.  Whatever is left at the end of the trip is theirs to keep.  If you are looking for cheap Disney items, there is a WalMart close to the Disney properties that has aisles and aisles of things at bargain prices.  We always hit it up before we head out of Orlando to get gift items for friends back in Oklahoma.

Photos

While at Disney, I’ll use my cellphone to take most of our pictures and turn them into a photobook when we return.  Disney does offer Photopass which means they’ll scan your MagicBand (or park ticket) and take photos throughout the day.  You can see these photos on your account on the Disney website and purchase the ones you want OR you can buy MemoryMaker ($169 for advance purchase, $199 for immediate use).  MemoryMaker allows you to purchase all of your digital images for one price.  The Disney photographers have great locations at which you can stop and take your pics, but you also get ride pictures and videos.  After you get off of the “big” rides (Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, etc), you will go to where they post the pictures.  When you see your family, scan your MagicBand and those photos will link to your account.  We bought this service on our last trip and were really pleased with our pictures.

They even add little extras (see Olaf above) and you get some stock photos of characters and rides.  You can also link MemoryMaker to the accounts of your other family members, meaning you can SHARE photos.  We split the cost among three families so it seemed well worth the $169 to have good, fun photos.  Because we are only doing one Disney park this year (we are venturing out to Universal), we aren’t going to purchase MemoryMaker.  However, I highly recommend it for people who are doing multiple days at parks and/or have friends or family who can split the cost.

Strollers

If you are traveling from far and don’t want to hassle with bringing a stroller, Disney does offer stroller rental for like $15 or $20 a day.  We rented a stroller once, but found that a cheap umbrella stroller worked just as well for us.  If you are doing five days of parks, that is almost $100 just for stroller rental.

 

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Stroller fan for the win

 

 

Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique 

This boutique will transform your child into a beautiful princess or a heroic knight, with packages for the girls starting at around $65.  Yikes.  I couldn’t do it.  Unless this is an experience you just can’t pass up, pack your own princess dress, put your girl’s hair in a bun, and put some spray glitter on her.  She won’t even know what she is missing.

Want to know what the experts say?

Before heading to Disney each year, I consult some real experts for updates or reminders about certain parks.  My favorite website is WDW Prep School.  It’s the best, but can be overwhelming because there is so much information.  Take in a bit at a time and you will learn so much while planning your vacation.

I also consult books.  I use this one, but there are many on the market.  You can purchase from Amazon or find one at your local library in the travel section.

Anything I’m missing?  Post in comments and I’ll add to my Disney follow-up.

Travel

Oklahoma Travel: Turner Falls

Hello, friends!  This is the start to a new series about day trips in Oklahoma.  I come from a military family, but was born in Oklahoma and ended up back here when my dad received orders to return when I was a kid.  We didn’t do much traveling when I was young, but my husband and I have been all over Oklahoma and feel blessed to live in a place with such treasures!  It is beautiful here and the history of our state is so interesting to me.  For the first post in this series, we are going to take a look at a family-friendly place in southern Oklahoma.

Turner Falls–Davis, OK

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Turner Falls is home to the largest waterfall in Oklahoma.  The park includes many natural swimming pools, wading areas, two water slides, a diving board, and a few sandy beaches.  I have lived in Oklahoma almost my entire life and had never been to Turner Falls until last summer.  After visiting the area, my husband and I both agree that this is one of the best attractions in our amazing state.

If planning a trip to Turner Falls, there are a few things you should know before you go.

  1. It DOES cost.  The price for adult tickets (ages 13 and up) is $12 and the price for kids (ages 6-12) is $6.  For a family of five, this seemed costly until we realized how great the park is and how much time we could spend here.  We were at the falls for the majority of the day and every penny we spent was well worth it.
  2. Every child must have a life jacket.  The park requires all kids aged 12 and under to wear a coast guard approved flotation device at all times.  They do not provide the life jackets nor do they offer them for a rental fee–you must bring your own.  Luckily, we had flotation devices for our boys and we borrowed one for our daughter before we headed that direction.  They are really serious about this and will remind you if your kids aren’t in the appropriate safety device.
  3. Bring water shoes or something of the sort.  We didn’t even think about this and ended up just keeping our flip flops on while we were at the park.  Many of the natural swimming areas are shallow and you have to make your way across slick rocks or over gravel-type areas.  The flip flops were fine, but water shoes would be a better option.  Also, there is a huge staircase leading to a “castle” and some hiking areas to explore.  You will be most comfortable if you have some sort of shoes with you.

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    At the castle area
  4. There are food/drink places available.  We ate before we arrived at the park, but indulged in one of the tastiest snow cones I have ever had.  The restaurants seemed to offer typical quick-service foods (chicken strips, burgers, etc.) and they were a bit pricey.  If on a budget, you may want to pack a picnic and enjoy your lunch at an available picnic table.
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    This is the best we could do.  Haha!

    5. Be prepared to spend some time here.  My kids absolutely loved the falls area and the other natural swimming areas, but nothing prepared me for how much time they would want to spend in the location with the slides and the diving board.  We spent about two hours in this part of the park and there was a lot of complaining when we made the kids get out of the water so we could get to our next destination.  This park is fun–plan to spend a whole day.IMG_2228

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    My husband and the kids in the deepest area of the park, right next to the falls

    6. You can stay in the park overnight. They have cabins ($150/night) and open-air shelters ($40/night) to rent and R/V hook-ups ($25) and campsites are available ($12.50).  We did not stay in the park as we had other plans, but it may be something we do in the future.  If we do, it will be a cabin–not a campsite!  We aren’t much for camping.

 

After our amazing day at Turner Falls, we headed to Thackerville, OK to stay at the Winstar casino.  We aren’t big gamblers, but my husband had some free rooms after speaking at a previous clinic at the hotel.  It seems weird to take kids on a trip to a casino and I felt really odd about it, until we got there.  The pool is awesome and there were many families with kids at the resort.

 

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Apparently, they like to flex.

We spent two nights at the Winstar, which boasts the largest casino in the state. Most of our time was spent at the main pool (there are two pools) or eating at one of the many restaurants offered.  This resort makes you feel like you are in Vegas, without the big price tag and the long day of travel.  IMG_2220

If you are from Oklahoma and are looking for a short trip or if you are from out of state and end up in this gorgeous place, you can plan your trip to Turner Falls here and your trip to the Winstar here.

 

Look for other Oklahoma day trip travel plans soon!

Travel

How to survive a cross-country road trip…with kids

IMG_3896Every other summer for the past several years, we have made the trip from Oklahoma to Orlando, Florida by car.  When we tell people we are driving to Disney World, they think we are crazy!  But…we love it!  The road trip is all part of the fun for us, so I thought it may be useful for you all to see what others do to make long car rides bearable.

1.Try to break the trip up into a few days.

We used to make the 20-plus hour trip in two days, but since we’ve had three children, we take three days to get there and, depending on our second destination (we usually hit a beach after Disney), 1-2 days to get home.  Our kids love to see the sights in a new town and eat at unique restaurants, so we try to stop in different places each time.  Two years ago, we went to West Monroe, Louisiana on Day 1 to do the Duck Dynasty thing.

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On Day 2, we made a dinner stop in Pensacola and walked around for awhile before heading a bit outside of town to stay the night. We use Priceline to book a hotel and don’t have many requirements–just a clean room and maybe a hotel pool for the kids to burn off some energy.

2. Eat at new-to-you places

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Haha!  He was so little here!

My husband and I are both in the education field (I am a high school librarian, he is a teacher/football coach) so we vacation on a budget.  However, we don’t want to totally sacrifice the vacation feel and eat all of our meals in the car.  I pack snacks (more on that below), but lunch and dinner are eaten in a restaurant.  Sometimes, we do stop for fast food at places we don’t have in our home town (Zaxby’s is a favorite), but most often, we try to find a local eatery using an app like Yelp or Roadtrippers.  This gives us time to unwind and lets the kids move about a bit before we get back in the car.  Plus, it gives us an excuse to eat foods for which each specific area is known.  Texas=barbecue, Louisiana=gumbo or jambalaya, Florida=seafood.

3. Pack snacks

While we don’t mind spending money at meal times, I refuse to buy soda, chips, and candy at every gas station or rest stop we visit.  Junky food makes for cranky kids!  I like to take a cooler with bottled water, baby carrots, cheese sticks, yogurt tubes, and other portable, healthy-ish items.  I also usually make some peanut butter energy bites (recipe here) for a sweet treat and pack some dry cereal or crackers.  Each of our kids has a Yeti cup, so we have them fill those with ice water before the trip begins and we just refill as needed.  I’m not a TOTAL grinch, though, so we do grab a couple of quick snacks at least once on the trip.  Usually we reserve that for driving day 2 or 3 when the kids are bored with whatever it is that I packed.

4. Make sure they are comfortable

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Every person in my family has a different temperature at which they are comfortable.  Therefore, we all pack blankets and pillows so there is no whining about being hot or cold.  My husband is almost always the driver so he sets the temp, which is freezing.  If you are headed to the beach and don’t want to bring blankets due to them taking up car room, use beach towels for this.

5. Have plenty for them to do

And this is where this post gets really long!  If you are going to be spending multiple hours in a car with kids, they WILL get bored and you WILL lose your patience, so…plan accordingly.  I only allow one bag of fun stuff in the car because we have loads of luggage.  After many years, I think I have it down to a science!  Here is what we take:

Coloring Books/Workbooks/Blank Notebooks/Crayons

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The kids will have coloring contests, work on school skills, draw, write stories, etc for HOURS.  I try to bring a variety of these and usually buy everyone a new box of crayons or markers before we start the trip.  You can find these things at many places–most of our things come from Sam’s Club, WalMart, or Target, but I just bought this from Amazon.

Make song playlists

My kids love music of all kinds, so we make some killer lists of tunes before we head out on the road.  We use iTunes and Amazon Prime music for this, but I know many people also use Spotify.  Normally, we listen to the music all together, but we also make the lists available on the kids’ Kindles and our old cellphones so they can listen on headphones if they want.  If they are getting restless, we’ll take turns picking songs and that seems to get everybody in a good mood.  They like to have a little control of what we listen to.

Play Games

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We play lots of car games, including I-Spy, Road Trip Bingo, Would You Rather, and, our very favorite, Rubberneckers.  If you don’t have this game and you are taking kids on the road, you need it.  It is so fun and we will play it several times over our 3-day drive.

Electronic Devices/Movies

Believe it or not, this is the activity my kids do the LEAST when on a road trip.  However, sometimes we need a little quiet and we turn them loose on either a device (my kids each have these or we let them watch a movie on our portable DVD player.  Our local public library has Overdrive, so we will download some books/audiobooks for the kids before we leave town and we make sure they each have a few games they can play without using data.

6.  Pack a family overnight bag

It takes some strategy to get our car packed for a 10-day trip for 5 people and the last thing we want to do on the road is unload everything each night.  We pack one big bag with toiletries and a couple days of outfits for each of us.  This is the one of the smartest things we do on our roadtrips and has helped us tremendously over the years.

 

I hope you find some useful tips here for traveling with kids.  We are headed out to Disney in a few weeks and I’d love some new ideas if you want to share in the comments!