Our trip was wonderful. It was absolutely everything I thought it would be and more. Seeing the girls and their reaction to everything was just magical.
When I was planning our trip (and oh, did I plan!) I read everything I could get my hands on--reviews, blog posts, anything with any information or opinions about experiences. I want to do that here as well--give my thoughts on everything about the trip in hopes of helping someone who is planning theirs. *Disclaimer: This post is long, and will probably be very boring unless you're planning a trip or just appreciate random information. :)
If there's any way possible, I would stay at a Disney World Resort. Outside may be cheaper, but the convenience of staying inside makes it completely worth it, in my opinion. We stayed at Pop Century this time. Our room was just a regular, very standard hotel room. It wasn't large, but it served it's purpose. A lot of people had told us they were only in their rooms long enough to sleep and shower, and that was true for us. We did make the decision to upgrade to a preferred room to be closer to the lobby (which held the food court) and the buses. This was a good decision. The walk from our room to the lobby was two or three minutes, whereas some of the standard rooms had a ten to fifteen minute walk. Our room was on the back side of the building--meaning the opposite of the pool--and faced a courtyard and wooded area. The other side was much louder than ours, so it was perfect for afternoon naps for the girls. Touringplans.com has a list of rooms rated by noise, location, etc. and also provides views from each room. It's a really neat resource. As soon as Disney texted our room number, I checked it out there to make sure it was what we wanted.
You can also have packages from the parks sent back to the hotel if you're staying on property. This was really helpful for some large items we purchased since they would have been a hassle to lug around with us.
We parked our car after we checked in and didn't touch it again until the day we left. I had been a little leery of the bus system, mostly because I'm a bit anxious in tight places with lots of people and germs and breathing the same air, or in situations where I'm not in control. (I am fully aware that's a little crazy. I'm better than I used to be though!) Like everything else at Disney, the buses were very clean...which made me feel a lot better about things. We rarely waited more than ten minutes for a bus. It's a large resort (Maybe the largest? I'm not sure.) so it has it's own buses, meaning that you go straight from Point A to Point B without having to stop by another resort to pick up or drop off other guests.
Disney Dining Plan
I know this is a hot topic among Disney enthusiasts and bloggers, and everyone has a different opinion. Because we were doing character meals every night, we went with the dining plan. We came out ahead because character meals are expensive, but without those, it probably would have been cheaper to pay for meals out of pocket. We had the standard dining plan--one quick service, one table service, and two snacks per person every day. Harper was free. It was too much food, and by the last day we still had fifteen or so snack credits left. So my advice here is to do the math, and think about the types of meals you're planning to have before you decide on the dining plan. There are several websites with calculators that help you compare costs. Keep in mind that gratuities are not included, except for Cinderella's Royal Table, so you'll still be spending anywhere from $20-30 depending on the restaurant.
Our dining plan also came with refillable mugs to use in the food court. This kept us from having to keep drinks in the room, but it wouldn't have been nearly as convenient if we were farther away from the lobby.
The neatest thing about Disney (compared to other theme parks I've visited) is they allow you to bring in food and drinks. If you don't have the dining plan, this can help you save a ton of money, especially on snacks and drinks. It also gives you options if you have picky or light eaters who may not want a full meal at a restaurant.
Quick Service Restaurants
-Pop Century Food Court: We ate here a few times during our stay. There were lots of different options, and everything was pretty good.
-Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe: We all had burgers and fries here. They had a great toppings bar . It's an indoor restaurant, which is always a plus with small kids on hot days.
-Yak and Yeti Local Market Cafe: This was a really good quick service meal at Animal Kingdom. You can use snack credits for chicken fried rice and egg rolls, so that's a smart snack choice based on price and value when using the dining plan. The only downside is that all the seating is outdoors. It was covered and there were ceiling fans, but on a really hot day it may not be the best choice.
-PizzeRizzo: This restaurant is new at Hollywood Studios and is themed after the Muppets character. The personal pizzas were served with Caesar salad (Disney loves some Caesar salad, let me tell you), and they were just okay. On the bright side, it's a two-story air-conditioned restaurant with a lot of seating.
-Be Our Guest: Be Our Guest is the restaurant inside the Beast's castle at the Magic Kingdom. At dinner, the Beast is there and the meal is table service, but it's open as a quick service restaurant for lunch. It was fantastic. The food was great and the restaurant itself was just beautiful. It was easily our favorite quick service meal (and one of our favorite meals, period). Reservations for both lunch and dinner are hard to come by, so make those early if you're planning to dine here.
**If you're on the dining plan, when it comes to quick service meals they only count credits, not types of credits, meaning that a child could order from the regular menu. At table service restaurants, children have to choose from the children's menu choices.
Table Service Restaurants: Character Dining
-Cinderella's Royal Table: Insanely expensive, but so, so worth it. The food was delicious and the atmosphere was just perfect. Again, make reservations early. And just close your eyes when you pay the bill.
-Tusker House, Minnie's Springtime Dine at Hollywood and Vine, and the Crystal Palace: I'm grouping all of these together because they're all buffets and served basically the same foods. There were small differences, but that's it. All of the restaurants were great for meeting characters, but the food was just okay. You're definitely paying for the character experience, not the quality of the meal. Minnie's Springtime Dine was our favorite. The layout of the restaurant was really good, the servers were super friendly, and the characters spent a good bit of time at each table. The Crystal Palace was really pretty and would be a great spot for watching Wishes if you had a late reservation and could be seated at the window. Also, the character rotations here were long...as in, they told you upfront to be prepared to spend about ninety minutes there. Tusker House was really loud, but the characters made multiple passes by each table so that was nice. Reservations are a must at all of these as well.
-Gaston's Tavern: I liked the LeFou's Brew, but no one else did. The cinnamon roll was huge--all four of us shared it and we still threw away a lot of it--but I was a little disappointed in it. It was okay, but not as great as people had said.
-Sleepy Hollow: We had ice cream cookie sandwiches from here as we watched the parade. They were huge, and really good. Again, definitely something to share.
-Dole Whips, Mickey ice cream bars, Minute Maid frozen lemonade...all of those were a good use of snack credits based on price.
-Best snack option if you're on the dining plan? Any size drink at Starbucks, including lattes, frappes, everything.
-Our favorite thing was something that wasn't on the dining plan: a refillable popcorn bucket. It was $10 and then you could refill it at any of the parks for $1.50. (You could use snack credits to pay for refills, but it wasn't a good value for the dining plan.) Aniston is a huge fan of popcorn (she gets that from her mama) and so this was great for us.
-The snacks were the hardest thing to use, I think. We definitely wouldn't have bought most of those things if we didn't have the dining plan. To make the most of the plan, you had to spend around $4 per snack...otherwise, you were wasting money.
Disney World with Kids
-Be flexible. I had a step-by-step plan going in, but my plans were often thwarted by a random character meet and greet I hadn't expected or by Aniston wanting to ride a certain ride as we passed it. Our best experiences were when we just went with the flow and focused on what the girls wanted to do in the moment.
-Utilize the baby care center.
-Take a good quality stroller or rent one. We researched this a lot before we went. Most websites recommended having a stroller for any child under the age of eight. That seemed a bit ridiculous to me, having never been to Disney World before, but I completely understand now. Even if your child does well at theme parks, you have to consider that you'll be walking that much every day for several days. There are several rental companies that will deliver and pick up strollers from your hotel, and Disney rents strollers as well (even though those looked pretty uncomfortable). We knew we needed an option for Aniston, but thought renting a double stroller was just a silly idea, and also wouldn't be easy to maneuver in crowds. Before we left, we bought a Chicco Bravo for 2, a sit and stand stroller. It worked perfectly, not only for giving Aniston short breaks when she got tired, but also for keeping up with her when the crowds were heavy.
-Set a budget for souvenirs. Aniston is really great about not begging for things--she always has been. She had saved money to take with her, so we allowed her to have free reign over her purchases...while still providing guidance, of course. This was wonderful because we never had to say no, and I think she learned a bit about the value of things and budgeting.
-Take time for naps. When I was planning the trip, I felt like going back to the hotel during the day was just a huge waste of time. It still felt like that every time we left the park, but it was necessary. The one time we didn't go back (on Tuesday because of the parade), we were all tired and grouchy by late afternoon and even considered cancelling our dinner reservation.
-Before we left, Aniston decorated envelopes for our mousekeeping tips. This was a good way to involve her in the trip planning process, and also taught her a little about being kind. Our mousekeeper was really grateful, and I like to think it gave her a smile when she saw an envelope every day with pictures and stickers on it.
-The train is a great way to take a break when you feel it's needed. It takes roughly twenty minutes to circle the park.
-See the welcome show.
-See Wishes. Make sure to look for Tinkerbell. (This is the last month for Wishes, but I'm sure the Magic Kingdom's new evening show will be just as good.)
-If you're debating on keeping kids out late for Wishes vs getting them up early for the welcome show, I'd definitely go with the welcome show. Characters are more entertaining than fireworks, hands down.
-Make sure to watch the Festival of Fantasy parade. It's at an inconvenient time (3:00 pm) since that's usually during naptime, but it's really good.
-Plan to have a rest day in the middle of your trip. We didn't do this, and it was a mistake. By day five of visiting the parks, everyone was tired. A day in the middle to visit the pool, go to Disney Springs, or explore the resort would have been nice.