Monday, July 15, 2024

How To Do Disney World If You’re Not Into Disney

How To Do Disney World If You’re Not Into Disney

In case you’ve stumbled upon this post via a Google search, please be aware that this is a very specific article. It’s a guide to visiting Disney World if you’re not that into Disney. I myself am not that into Disney. And I worry about saying this, because some of the adults I saw at Disney World seemed to be very, very, very into it. I’m almost scared to write anything remotely scathing lest I get bombarded with abuse from Disney super-fans. Stabbed to death with a crystal-encrusted fairy Godmother wand. Strangled with a stretched-out Slinky Dog toy.

But here’s the thing: most of the adults I know in real life aren’t that into Disney. They have no strong feelings about it either way. And this post is for them. Maybe you also have no strong feelings about Disney: perhaps you’re pretty much ambivalent about it. Maybe spending a small fortune to fly halfway across the world and ride around a man-made river in a fibreglass clamshell isn’t high on your priority list. This post is for you, too.

And if you have arrived at this post via a Google search and are now perplexed as to why anyone in their right mind would go to Disney World if they weren’t that into it then I have one word for you (a word that should be pretty obvious but I’ll indulge): kids. Kids are surely the reason the majority of adults go to any theme park and – I’m going to go out on a limb here – also the reason that adults go to places like Centerparcs. Because what kid-free adult would voluntarily pay Business Class to Barbados money in order to stay in a faux log cabin, go swimming in a giant greenhouse and dine at a selection of the worst eateries Great Britain has to offer?

I’d hazard a guess at…not many. (I think I probably still have Canterparcs to look forward to, by the way – the kids never stop going on about it.)

So anyway, here’s my guide to doing Disney if you’re not that into Disney – aka “doing it for the kids”. And I haven’t written this post to diminish the experience of those adults who love a nostalgic, balloon-filled jaunt to Orlando with their special Mickey Mouse backpacks on (if you read on you’ll see that I’m not totally immune to its charms) nor to be any sort of Debbie Downer about the place. If you read How To Book A Holiday That You’ll All Enjoy you’ll see that I booked the trip to Disney in part because I had always been curious about it: had wanted to tick it off the list. See what it was all about. It wasn’t entirely a generous act of self-flagellation/martyrdom/insanity and, at any rate, I am pretty non-judgemental when it comes to what makes other people tick.

You get your thrills from the vacuum cleaner, power turned down to “rug” setting? Who am I to judge. Spend your weekends writing love letters with your own blood? Knock yourself out. You voluntarily make an annual pilgrimage to a place with a pink castle and a haunted hotel, where every other building’s a merchandise store and every employee calls you friend? Slightly more niche, but you do you…*

Here are some – hopefully – helpful pointers for those considering a trip to Orlando.

1. Ask Yourself: Do You Even Want To Go

I didn’t want to start on a low but I’m trying to write an honest, helpful guide here for those who don’t love theme parks. So. Be upfront with yourself. Do you even want to go to Disney? If you’re a bit curious and it would make your kid’s year then that’s one thing: if you know that you are actively going to detest it, because you hate Organised Joy™ and because queues make you go cold and because loud clips of music played on a loop might just send you over the edge…do not go. Just don’t.

Due to the fact that I have unrealistic expectations of things and am eternally optimistic when it suits my agenda, I thought that the queues and the crowds and the noise at Disney World wouldn’t really bother me. I also thought that the whole Mandatory Fun™ aspect of it all would be OK, even though I’m a cynical old boot and think Mickey Mouse is one of the creepiest cartoon characters ever drawn.

I’ll be frank: all of the above bothered me, to varying degrees. Not to the point where I was doing a Michael Douglas in Falling Down but a lot of the time it definitely didn’t feel enjoyable, in the usual sense of the word. It felt intense. More of an experience than an indulgence. I think you’re either a theme park enthusiast or you’re not; you’re either the sort of person who can succumb to your childlike glee at princess appearances and glitter-filled balloons or you’re the sort of person who’d rather pluck out your own tonsils with a pair of blacksmith’s tongs.

I found it easy to be swept away by the kids’ sense of excitement and that was a wonderful, memorable thing, but if that enthusiasm level ever waned, even fleetingly, I’d find myself screaming inside my own head: WHAT IN THE ACTUAL HELL AM I EVEN DOING HERE IF THEY DON’T EVEN LOVE IT?

Think carefully is all I’m saying. If you think you’ll hate it then you almost definitely will. There are bits I loved (keep on reading) and I’m glad I went, because it was a very unique experience, but there were touch and go moments where I’d like to have turned back time and spent the money on a beach holiday with a kids’ club. Or two beach holidays. Maybe even three. And on that note:

2. Price It Up Properly

When it comes to working out your budget, I’m going to give you my two cents as someone whose patience was stretched the minute they arrived at Magic Kingdom: prioritise not having to queue.

Because these queues, they’re long. They were routinely a 35 minute wait even for the most basic kids’ carousel and fairground type rides. For the “big ticket” items – the faster rollercoasters and popular attractions (Slinky Dog rollercoaster, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train come to mind) – wait times were sometimes two, even three hours long.

Three hours! To ride for thirty seconds on a rollercoaster!

Anyway, all was not lost because you could buy something to alleviate the pain of queueing and it was called Genie Plus. Genie Plus is a sort of priority boarding service (like the Universal Express Pass I wrote about) that allows you to use a separate queue to the rest of the poor sods sweltering away in the heat. The toilers trudge through the normal lane to await their fate and you, with your Genie Plus, feel smug/like a prize twat (delete as applicable) racing past hundreds of people in your Lightening Lane, which is completely empty and should really be paved with gold, just to emphasise the difference between them and us.

There’s something pretty wrong about it, isn’t there – that you can pay a fortune for admission to the parks but for that colossal whack of money all you get is the gift of seeing your life slip away in half hour increments? To get admission to the parks and enjoy the rides and not wish you were sawing off your own feet in a puddle of lemon juice, you must pay extra. The extra, when we were there (second week of April), was $25 per person per day. Plus tax, obviously, because it would be too much to just tell people exactly how much anything was going to cost.

You can see how this would add up over the course of a week, this Genie Plus thing, but do not be in any doubt that it gives you an entirely different experience. On our first day at the parks we didn’t have it and managed two rides before the kids got sick of waiting around – it just felt as though we were constantly walking then waiting, walking then waiting – but on the day I paid for Genie Plus, we (and this is no word of a lie, I was an absolute ninja on the app by lunchtime) did fourteen rides. Fourteen! Not only that, we did them over three parks. So determined was I to get my money’s worth.

The downsides of Genie Plus? Well. It’s not like at Universal where the pass just lets you swagger like an entitled berk down the First Class boarding lane whenever a ride takes your fancy: you have to book your activities through the aforementioned app. You can only book one at a time, and lots of the desirable rides book up completely from around 7am when the app allows you to start your frenzied bun fight (so relaxing, so magical); but after an hour or so of being absolutely apoplectic with rage and disbelief, you soon get used to the system.

Oh also: most of the really sought-after rides aren’t included in Genie Plus. Things like the Tron ride and Avatar, the big Star Wars ride and (inexplicably) the Slinky Dog rollercoaster. If you want to go on those marvels and not queue up then the Genie Plus you’ve paid for won’t work, you have to pay a one-off fee for the special Lightening Lane. When we were there it was $20 each for Avatar.

Are you following all of this? Good-o.

All I’m saying is, I’d make the Genie Plus a budgeting priority, even if you only add it on for a couple of the days. If you have to sacrifice a few lunches – eat big at breakfast and early to dinner – then so be it. It’s worth it.

3. Eat Big At Breakfast

Food. By the time we reached Disney World we had already done a week in Florida (read about that here) and, to be blunt, did not need to eat another stack of pancakes or skewer of shrimps or double-pattied burger ever again in our entire lives. And so we weren’t even vaguely tempted by the beckoning finger of Disney’s many and varied food establishments. I cannot comment on the standard of the food because genuinely, in the five days we spent there, we only bought two items. A croissant and a baguette from a “French patisserie” in Epcot. (Both were fine, not great.)

What we did instead (and this very much ties in with the next tip) is we bought lovely fluffy bread rolls from the Publix supermarket, a small tub of butter and a packet of sliced ham and turkey and in the mornings we spent approximately six minutes stuffing these rolls and wrapping them in foil. In they went, into the backpack, along with eight bags of crisps (you have to have spares in this parenting life, don’t you?), four bags of mini cookies and whatever other conveniently-packaged delights we’d picked up down the aisles.

Total price of lunch each day? About six dollars for four of us. It would have been around a hundred had we done even a basic fast food joint. It also meant we could stop when we wanted, find a shady spot and just sit down and eat: no queues, no planning required. You could get free iced water at most of the food and drink service points and so we filled up our Chilly’s bottles (we took three with us in our checked luggage, can’t recommend Chilly’s bottles enough) and had ice cold drinks all day long.

Food for a family of four at Disney isn’t cheap (is it really cheap to eat out anywhere these days?); you could easily spend $300 or more a day on food and so you definitely need to make space for it in your budget, if budgets are your thing. (I love a holiday budget list: anything to ruin my own enjoyment. I’m basically a self-sabotager.) Cutting out lunch expenses with an easy packed picnic is a fine way, in my opinion, of giving yourself a chunk back. To spend on Genie Plus passes…

4. Accommodation: Go In Hard

I’m going to do a total u-turn on my own sensibilities here and recommend something that I didn’t actually plan, or do. Because I think that this would have actually made the trip to Disney much easier and – I’ll say it – just that bit better: if I was going to re-do my trip then I think I would definitely…almost definitely…stay at a Disney resort.


If you have been following me for any length of time you’ll know that staying on a Disney resort would not be my jam. Not my jam at all. But hear me out, because there’s method to my apparent madness. I booked an Airbnb because it would give us more space, the option to cook in the evenings if we wanted (or prepare picnic lunches!) and a sense of freedom to come and go from the parks that we wouldn’t get if we stayed in a hotel.

Well. All of that was true (and the Airbnb was about £342 per night, so a lot cheaper than one of the Disney rooms that has the separate living area with a sofa bed for the kids) but we barely used the house apart from to sleep and have breakfast. We were usually up and out by half past eight and didn’t get home until nine ish at night – the option to cook was handy, but we only cooked once. And even then, as I stood stirring burned garlic in an unfamiliar pan, I did wonder why I was trying to make spaghetti bolognese with cupboard-salvaged ingredients when I was supposed to be having the Holiday of a Lifetime™.

And, each time we drove up and down the interstate, to and from the parks, I did ponder how life would have been simpler if we had just flown directly into Orlando instead of Miami, dumped our cases in a Disney room and eased back into a week of themed buffets and hotel water slides. I’m coming around to the idea that if you go to Disney, you go in hard. No car journeys, no having to find places to eat in the evening (we ended up at Five Guys and McDonald’s more often than not, anyway) and the benefit of being able to wander around later in the evening to see the fireworks and night shows. We didn’t do any of those in the end, because there was always a sense that we still had to get home…

The perfect solution would be the aforementioned larger Disney room or suite with a kitchenette and a separate little space for the kids. Then you could make your picnics, have pastries for breakfast if you fancied that instead of trekking down to a buffet or what have you, and stock up your mini fridge with handy snacks and bits and pieces to keep the kids going.

But the price of that? When we were there, it was about £770 per night at one of the deluxe hotels. £350 per night would have seen us in a twin room (two queen beds) but no kitchenette. And, as we’ve established, the kitchenette is key…

5. Find the Peak Times and Avoid Them

So: it’s all thoroughly confusing, isn’t it, Disney? Stay there – but also don’t. Take a picnic, but only if you have a kitchenette. Have a kitchenette, but only if you want to extend your mortgage. There is one hard and fast rule that I’d dish out though and it is this: avoid peak times. Avoid, avoid, avoid!

I used crowd calendars when I was planning the trip to work out the best time to go to the parks (you can find them on Google here) and then chose a week that was in a low-medium period of busyness. And it was still really busy. The week before had been rated as the absolute busiest, maximum capacity time (it was Easter) and I cannot even imagine what that would be like. Use the crowd calendars and for the love of God, avoid the peak times! Though apparently there are storms in the summer months so there’s that to think about…

6. You Could Always Wait Until They’re Older

Considering Disney with a baby and a toddler? WHY? Why, for the love of God? If you’re not that into Disney then I can guarantee you they’re not. Sure, little Jimmy’s face lights up when he sees Finding Nemo pop up on the iPad but will he remember a trip to Disney in a year’s time? No he will not. Save your money, go to Sani resort (still need to test that one, too) and make use of that glorious-sounding creche thing they do at the beach. Still kicking myself that I never did that holiday…

There were so many people at Disney with prams and toddlers, double prams, baby papooses and prams, triple prams: I was desperate to know who they were doing it for. If it was for them, the adults, because they just love Disney, then fair play. But I just cannot see how it would be worth it for the very fleeting memory a baby or toddler would have of it.

I was aghast. Mainly because I found taking my baby and toddler (mine are nineteen months apart) to the supermarket enough of a mission when they were little. Going to Florida and negotiating thirty-six degree heat so that you can ride through a pretend tin mine? The mind boggles.

I have to say (and it’s probably the one thing I almost got completely right): I thought that I pitched the trip quite well in terms of the kids’ ages. They were 7 and 8 at time of visiting. The littler one didn’t like some of the feistier rides (the Millennium Falcon one, for example, and he didn’t want to try the roller coasters) but my eight year old was game for absolutely everything.  She was a proper thrill-seeker. Perhaps a year later would have meant they’d both want to ride all of the attractions but you live and learn. I’m not a bloody soothsayer.

Anyway, I think that 8-ish is a lovely age to go. Old enough to do all of the rides and to remember everything (they had better remember everything) but still young enough to be swept away by all of the magic at the Most Magical Place On Earth™. Still young enough for my cynicism not to have rubbed off on them.

7. Arm Yourself With The Facts

You’ve decided you’re going: what next? I say arm yourself with the facts before you start booking admission tickets and looking at hotels and Airbnbs. There are some things you should know that might affect how you plan your holiday. For instance: Disney World is actually made up of four different parks (the iconic Cinderella castle is in Magic Kingdom and then there’s Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios) and you can’t walk between them. In fact, getting between them is a bit of a faff, whether you take the Disney transport system (monorails, ferries, gondolas, just about everything except flying elephants) or you use your own car and drive from one to the other.

What else…there’s an attraction at Magic Kingdom called Swiss Family Treehouse and it looks as though it might be an adventure climbing park for the kids. It is not. Do not be tempted to enter the gateway, even if it’s the only place without a queue. It has no queue for good reason and that is because it’s complete shite.

Personally, I would research the absolute bejeezus out of your trip. It won’t spoil any surprises, it’ll just give you an idea of the things you should prioritise and the things you should miss. See the next tip:

8. There Are Things You Shouldn’t Miss

Obviously this post has a very distinct tone. One of – unsurprisingly, because it’s in the title – a person who is not that into Disney. Of course this was never going to be a glitter-strewn account of which cupcakes were the yummiest – get real. You’re on the wrong site if you’re after popcorn stands and “top ten rope drop rides”**, baby!

However, I will say that there were a few things that made the whole trip worthwhile. At least it pulled it all into perspective and made me nod my head wisely and mutter, ‘ah, now I (sort of) get it’…

The first thing was the Star Wars world in Hollywood Studios. It’s called Galaxy’s Edge and it is phenomenal. I grew up with Star Wars being a huge part of my life (the original three films, obviously, I won’t even entertain the idea of the rest of them) because my brother was borderline obsessed with it and my parents loved it (when my Mum remarried she walked down the aisle to the Star Wars theme played on the church organ) and even I knew the names of all of the characters, major and minor, could identify a Gamorrean Guard and sketch a Galactic map with all of the important planets.

So it was a bit of a moment, going to Galaxy’s Edge. When I say that you are totally immersed in the theming I’m not exaggerating: everything from the toilets to the bins to the drink dispensers are perfectly done. You feel – if you ignore all of the other people wearing shorts and baseball caps – as though you’re actually in Star Wars.

So that was brilliant – and the Star Wars rides were epic. We probably spent more time there than anywhere else. The other huge highlight was the Avatar ride in Animal Kingdom: it was life changing. I’m not even being sarcastic, which is a first for me. It’s a motion simulator ride where you go on the back of a winged alien bird thing called a Banshee and you actually feel as though you’re soaring through the air and over land and through narrow cave openings. It’s one of the most thrilling things I’ve ever done, which is both surprising and slightly sad seeing as though I was an international fashion model for twelve years. It’s the fact that you look as though you’re flying and you feel as though you’re flying: in your head, you are – 100% – flying.

Bloody marvellous. You sit on this sort of motorbike seat and then – bit of a surprise! – a metal barrier comes up behind you and pinions you onto it from the rear and then off you go, into the land of virtual reality. And the land was so beautiful – breathtakingly so. I actually had a moment where I welled up, as the Banshee and I paused at the edge of an alien savannah, he to catch his breath, I to take in the surroundings.

This, I thought, is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

God help us when VR and AI and whatever else become normal, everyday life tools. Who’d want to spend the morning driving a bus through Milton Keynes when they could be swooping about through waterfalls and over canyons? The world will be at a standstill.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that there were HUGE highlights during our trip to Disney. I also enjoyed the overly sentimental, dripping-with-nostalgia performance of Beauty and the Beast that we stopped to watch, where I hugged my eight year old tight and thought about myself at eight and how it felt like yesterday and then cried quietly behind my sunglasses because time goes so fast…

Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme…

And, ultimately, were we not there for the kids? Was this whole trip not a celebration of childhood and the privilege of being parents in the first place, a chance to really connect as a family and cherish the precious moments together?

‘Next year we’re doing that beach hotel idea,’ said Rich, as we met up outside the Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast ride, ‘the one where the kids go snorkelling but someone else looks after them.’

9. Exit Through The Gift Shop

The best piece of advice I received before Disney? I”ll pass it onto you now, like the Olympic Flame. Treasure it.

There are more merchandise stores at Disney World than almost anything else. In fact, a Disney World streetmap would look a bit like this: gift shop, gift shop, food place, gift shop, toilets, gift shop, ride.

You will realise, the moment your kids step into one of these merch stores, that your life as a sane adult is about to end. They want to buy everything. Nothing has an easy-to-read price. It all looks strangely similar to the stuff you can get on the way to the tills at Primark. If you allow unhindered merch shop access you will end up two things: deranged and poor.

A friend gave me this pearl of wisdom: allow them one trip to a gift shop per day and one only. Tell them that they may not actually buy anything until the very last day. Give them a budget. Tell them that because there are so many shops they must think very carefully about what they want, because they’ll see new things every time they go into a different place. Tell them they may look, but not touch.

Absolutely bloody genius.

I reckon this method of Delayed Merch Gratification saved us around four hours of pointless standing about in shops and probably around $80,000. Once they knew the rules, the kids stuck to them admirably, looking like a bit like professional antiques dealers as they stood next to the racks of teddies, hands clasped behind their backs, surveying the wares and mentally deliberating over whether or not they’d indulge when the glorious day of Merch-Buying reckoning finally arrived.

Obviously the last day was a nightmare, as we rushed from one land to another trying to find the one shop that had the Stitch keyring and trying to decide whether the expensive Storm Trooper helmet was better than the smaller kids’ one (the smaller kids one is great, by the way, and was $29.99, which seemed an absolute bargain compared to the tiny Yoda backpack charm that was around the same price). But at least the nightmare was a contained nightmare. It didn’t spill over continuously into the daily grind. I mean enjoyment.

10. Other Facts

I’m done with this post. Never has something taken me so long to put together. Between this post and the one before (here) I reckon I’ve spent more time writing about the “holiday” than I was actually on it. Here are some extra random thoughts that I can’t be arsed to weave into any sort of comprehensive order:

  • Florida is hot. They call it the Sunshine State but that’s like calling the Arctic the “Bit Nippy Place”. The heat was brutal and that’s coming from someone who loves a bit of scorchio. Pack accordingly, get those sunscreens you can spray on from a can for easy mid-day top-ups and make use of the iced water. I mean, really do.
  • The safari at Animal Kingdom is excellent and – from what I can see online – vastly underrated.
  • Toilets are plentiful, not too busy and they are clean. Just in case you were wondering. I like to go for a wee no less than thirty times an hour and so this pleased me greatly – there were toilets everywhere. It was a recurrent UTI-sufferer’s paradise.
  • We did five days at Disney in total and it was enough. On the longest day (the first time we had Genie Plus) we walked 12.7 miles and parked in three different car parks. Car parking is $30 per day but you can use it in all of the car parks – you need tickets that allow “park hopping” in order to visit more than one park in a day.

Right: do you have any tips? Or do you just want to stab me to death with the fairy godmother’s wand for saying anything negative about Disney? Comments below, please!

*joke! I couldn’t resist a bit of ribbing. I have at least three friends and two work colleagues who are going to take great offence at this.

**rope-drop is when the parks open. People queue up to be the first in (though you get to go in a while before if you’re staying at a Disney hotel, which is probably worth noting) and when the “rope drops” they run to the ride that they most want to get on, which will hopefully have a shorter queue. How this even counts as fun I have no idea.

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