In January of 2016, we did a week at Walt Disney World with close family friends. This was a fantastic and very different experience than going with our small family of three. As different friends and family who live in Florida joined us for different parts of the trip, we wound up having up to 14 people with us during the trip. Having that many loved ones there was great fun! It was also quite a crash course in planning Disney vacations with friends. In the weeks since that trip, we have done a lot of post-game quarterbacking.
Here are our Top 10 Lessons Learned for planning a big trip with another family to Walt Disney World. It would be great if you have some tips to add to this list so we can all learn together!
10) What they don’t know…..both does and doesn’t hurt them.
As a Disney World fan, I really want our friends to have an amazingly magical trip when they travel with us. And yet, most first timers and even casual fans do not have those expectations. What our friends didn’t know about some of the fun extras we skipped (Wishes, boat rentals, time at Fort Wilderness or Wilderness Lodge, Disney Springs, some of our favorite rides, etc, etc) didn’t hurt them. They had no expectations, so they were not looking for these experiences.
On the other hand, less experienced Disney World guests also don’t know about the importance of timing. Getting a friend to understand the importance of planning several months ahead is a challenge. I didn’t really convey this as well as I could have. And I think in this sense what our friends did know did hurt them. For us, it meant we were not able to stay at a monorail resort this trip. We still stayed at a fantastic resort, the Animal Kingdom Lodge. It simply was not the most convenient of the Disney resorts.
9) Naps matter. Timing of naps matters more than anticipated.
Okay, so this is one of those “devil in the details” things. We had four children under the age of six years with us on this trip. I knew naps mattered. I planned our relatively few must-do’s to allow time for mid afternoon naps. Specific nap times never mattered for our child, as long as she had some time to nap in the day. That’s not the case for every child. As it turned out, I planned most of our stuff right smack in the middle of one child’s normal nap hours. This would have been so simple to manage on the front end if I had thought about it at all. So this tip really is ultimately about checking the details – different families have different routines. Ask rather than guess if you are the trip planner.
8) Tables In Wonderland may be a must-do for large group trips of a week or more.
We did not do the Disney Dining Plan. While many others prefer the Disney Dining Plan, we do better with the flexibility of the Tables in Wonderland. As a group, we spent more than $1,200 on Tables in Wonderland eligible meals and drinks during the week. Tables in Wonderland is a 20% discount. So we saved just over $250 this trip using Tables in Wonderland. This discount program is available for Disney Vacation Club members and Annual Passholders. We also had a two bedroom at Animal Kingdom Lodge with a full kitchen and cooked several meals in the villa to control costs and reduce stress, which leads to Tip #7.
7) Meals in the Villa are well worth the run to the grocery store.
The obvious reason of cost savings certainly applies. Meals in the room are much less expensive than meals out and help balance that large dining bill. Having a larger variety of healthier options also applies. But to me, the biggest plus of meals in the room is that everyone gets to relax in a way that just doesn’t happen when you are worried about your children in a restaurant. Keeping villa meals simple (cereal, oatmeal, pizza, pasta, salad, burgers, lots of veggie options, sandwiches) and splitting tasks among multiple willing adults are the keys to making villa meals a great complement to meals out in my opinion.
6) Check in the night before friends arrive if possible.
It would have been well worth the cost for us to get one more night. Checking into the villa the night before our friends arrived would have let us do the grocery run and put everything away. And let us get their gifts tucked into their room as a magical surprise. And given them a place to go when they arrived at 10am to start the vacation with a nap. And given us a peaceful, relaxed morning instead of running around stress. Having everything done before our guests arrived would have started the trip on a much more magical tone. When we travel with friends again, we will check in a night early.
5) Consider food allergies & plan accordingly.
I knew one of the kids had a food allergy. This meant spending time reading food labels on the grocery run before they got there. It was very easy to deal with at the table service meals. A quiet mention to the server and we knew what would and would not work. Quick service surprised me. Mentioning child food allergy triggered discussion, research and often something not even on the menu to make sure we were okay. But…quick service is not really set up well to handle this. It took a fair bit of time. On our next visit, we will plan to take allergy-safe food to simplify quick service options.
4) Plan a day off.
By Saturday morning’s breakfast at Akershus, everyone but my daughter and I opted out. We did too much on this trip. Even planning multiple half-days off with lots of time in the room was not enough. A full day off would have been good. A full day off with a baby sitter or two from Kids Nite Out to provide an extra set of hands for the kids would have been even smarter. This gives a chance to really enjoy the resort. Ironically, in survey after survey it seems kids rate swimming at the pool as the best memory from a Disney World vacation. Non park days are important for big groups visiting Disney.
3) Location, location, location – – 3 strollers need a monorail or boardwalk resort.
Yes, this goes back to the earlier comment on knowledge and timing. When dissecting the trip afterwords, the importance of staying at a different resort with so many young kids was at the top of both of our lists for what to do differently next time. Don’t get me wrong. I love the Animal Kingdom Lodge. And the kids had a blast hanging out on the balcony watching the giraffe and other animals. But several strollers on the bus was not ideal. Any of the monorail or boardwalk locations would have been significantly easier.
2) Pair off within larger groups.
Groups only move as fast as the slowest person. Dividing into pairs within the biggest group would have let anyone who needed to do something (bathroom break, costume change, shopping, snack break, etc) get it done more efficiently while also improving the odds that pair would catch back up to the main group while only missing perhaps one thing.
1) Don’t sweat it.
It took a few times of watching trip video before I really believed it. Everyone had a great time!! Sure, there is a lot we will do differently on the next trip. And everyone wants to do another trip! Actually, there is interest in doing another trip much sooner than I was thinking. With this trip complete, our friends are already interested in starting to plan the next one. So it is true. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Walt Disney World with friends is a fantastic experience. I can’t wait to go again with our friends!