One of the best ways to truly enjoy Disney World's many theme parks in Orlando, Fla., is to close your eyes and go to sleep.
On the plane or in the car on the drive to Florida. By the pool or in your room. If you have kids along, by all means persuade them to do it any chance you get.
Boring as it sounds, a little extra sleep went a long way toward helping our three school-age children and my wife and me navigate the heat, crowds, lines and miles of walking through five Disney parks in four fun-filled days last July.
It also prepped us for an equally Disney-soaked experience aboard the Disney Magic cruise ship, which delivers family-oriented communal fun as well as the opportunity to do your own thing.
Our three-day cruise took us to Nassau in the Bahamas and Disney's private island, but the pace was far different from "the World." The ship, in just its second year, offered kid-friendly activities day and night and unique Disney-style dining. But there was plenty of time to read, swim or do nothing but stare at the endless ocean from the private deck of our staterooom.
But back to the mainland: If you choose not to snooze at Disney World, you may put valuable (read: expensive) vacation time at risk. For every Disney high, such as the G-force explosion that starts your ride on the Rockin' Roller Coaster at Disney-MGM Studios, there are lows such as coping with a preteen's inexplicable meltdown in front of the picturesque Spaceship Earth globe at Epcot.
For all the the 3-D fun of attractions such as Animal Kingdom's It's Tough to Be a Bug (beware crawly things under your feet and seat), there is the frustration of standing in 90-degree heat and humidity, trying to get five people to agree on which Magic Kingdom themed restaurant to try (never mind that your kids would eat the same thing at each one).
And yes, the autographs and pictures with Disney characters will dazzle your children. But without some R&R, expect a few family snapshots that won't make it into your Christmas cards because someone has their arms angrily crossed or, as we discovered, wandered out of the shot altogether.
About the only thing you can't buy at Disney World is patience. So bring your own because each day will poop you out.
We learned that lesson in a hurry. My 6-year-old son Nick conked out at dinner the first two nights we were there. At an eye-popping $7.95 for chicken strips and fries, you can only take so many Styrofoam boxes back to your room, only to toss them in the garbage the next morning. While Disney's "cast members" are relentlessly pleasant and prompt, don't expect a credit on your bill just because Junior was too tired to eat.
This was our family's first visit to Disney World, so we spent a lot of time quizzing friends who had been there, surfing the Internet and reading up on the best ways to cut through the hype and congestion. Our plan: one park a day, with a selection of must-do attractions, with everyone getting to pick at least one. Because we were staying at a Disney resort, we'd take advantage of the one-hour early-bird entry for parks on select days. We'd put a good breakfast in the kids, figuring we could go light for lunch and avoid eating too much junk food.
The breakfasts and early starts worked great. With fresh, energized kids in the relative cool of morning, we bounded into Epcot and encountered almost no waits for such favorites as Spaceship Earth and Honey I Shrunk the Audience.
The next morning, we took a boat shuttle to MGM Studios and boarded the Star Wars thrill ride Star Tours with virtually no wait. At the Magic Kingdom, our plan to ride Space Mountain first thing was thwarted because the ride had closed temporarily. So we spun ourselves silly on the Mad Tea Party ride, daughters Kristen and Melissa snapped up autographs of hard-to-find characters such as Mary Poppins, and my son rode the Barnstormer rollercoaster several times, including once with its namesake Goofy sitting in the front seat.
Once the parks opened to the public, however, Disney World became Disney Wait. Thirty-to 60-minute waits became common. By 10 a.m., the sun had made shade a coveted commodity. Friendly sibling banter was replaced by cries of "I'm thirsty!" and repeated detours toward pricey souvenir stands. Just walking to the next ride was like herding cats in a buffalo stampede.
By contrast, the Magic cruise ship is designed so kids and adults alike can do their own thing.
As our bus charter pulled away from our hotel to the waves of Disney cast members, our kids seemed a tad let down that no more rides awaited. Their mood brightened a bit when the driver, in a rare moment of Disney candor, asked whether we were glad that overly cheerful Betty, our send-off hostess, was not riding with us for the 90-minute trip to Port Canaveral.
But it was like a whole new world when they got their first glimpse of the ship. Built in the style and appearance of great ocean liners, the 964-foot Magic features yellow lifeboats (Mickey's shoes), red smokestacks (pants) and black vents (ears). Not to mention an ear-splitting horn that announces your departures and arrivals to the first seven notes of "When You Wish Upon a Star."
Once aboard, we went straight to our stateroom, which was unlocked by the same key card that opened our hotel room and served as a credit card for all our expenses (your kids get identical cards, but thankfully, they only open the door). The room was billed as comfortably accommodating five people, and it did. But coming from a hotel room, it was an adjustment for our landlubber kids. Once they figured out how the beds folded out from the wall, however, they thought it was better than a tree fort.
The Magic has 11 decks and 875 staterooms, including many with private decks, three pools, including one only for adults, a spa and fitness center, and fast-food bars that never seemed to close. Each night of our three-day cruise featured dinner at a different restaurant: Lumière's ("Try the grey stuff, it's delicious," says the children's menu), which requires dressing up; Animator's Palate, where the room and meal evolve with illustrations, and Parrot Cay, a Caribbean feast. Your doting wait staff moves with you from restaurant to restaurant.
paul, if i were trimming, i'd clip these next three grafs, or pare them down seriously
We tried mightily to persuade our kids to take part in one of the elaborate programs set up for different age groups. More hangout than day care, they were well-staffed and loaded with computer play stations, video walls and comfy lounge areas. A separate video arcade (here again, only the parent debit card pays for tokens) was always busy. Teens had their own themed coffeehouse, with games, music and outside activities.
Our set seemed more entertained by the pool, which was a bit small considering how many people used it. Then again, it was set up in front of a stage that featured a crazy afternoon pool party led by Minnie Mouse, Goofy and Chip 'n Dale. After dinner, there were stage shows at the Walt Disney Theatre, movies, bars with live entertainment and a comedy club. The evening highlight for our kids was shortly before leaving port at Nassau, when fireworks exploded from the ship's smokestacks.
Our three-day cruise sailed through the first night and reached Nassau by 9 a.m. For the first time in six days, we were forced to use cash to buy anything. In addition to on-your-own shopping and excursions around the city, Disney offers shore packages (extra charge) to Atlantis, a glitzy resort with a huge casino, along with boat and snorkel tours.
The second night at sea ends up at Castaway Cay, a small island owned and operated exclusively for Disney cruise guests. There's no small-boat trip to shore -- the ship's gangway unloads you onto the island. A short bus trip takes you to biking, boating and hiking or just laying on the beach, floating or snorkeling in a secluded bay. A children's play area is set up in the water, with a lifeguard close at hand, and other beaches are reserved for teens and adults.
Our grand plans for a family snorkeling trip were canceled when my son developed a fever that kept him in our stateroom all day. So he and I read books while the girls hit the island and got their hair braided (hint: don't get sea water in your hair beforehand!). Later, my daughters came back and watched their brother while my wife and I enjoyed an hour and a half in paradise.
We didn't even fall asleep.