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Read these Walt Disney World tips before you buy tickets

You've probably seen them, those vacationers from Kenosha or Rochester or St. Louis. They're the ones explaining to a sobbing child that It's a Small World is closed for renovation.

They're the ones standing in line 90 minutes for a chance at 90 seconds on Dumbo.

They are not us.

As residents of Central Florida, we have a luxury our Northern and Midwestern friends just can't imagine: We live within a two-hour drive of Disney World.

For more than a decade, Disney World has become part of our family experience. Our daughters' growth can be documented in snapshots with Mickey, Pluto, Goofy and pals.

Along the way, we've compiled a host of other tidbits that we share with friends on things that make our visits special, our locals guide to the Mouse House.

Now, we share them with you.

Selecting tickets

Avoid confusion at the gate by researching what kind is best for you. The options are mind-boggling. The Disney Web site, www.disneyworld.com, can be confusing, too, but it lets you plug in all your information and see the ticket and resort options.

We buy Florida resident seasonal passes, which are good for a year from the first day of use. When they expire, we take a few months off.

For those who live out of state, the ticket choices depend largely on what type of park pass you need. Some tickets are good for a single park (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Disney's Hollywood Studios) for just a day. Pricier tickets let you jump back and forth between parks. And of course, there are passes good for more than one day. Study the Disney Web site and decide which pass fits your trip.

Where to stay

Sometimes, we just drive in for the day. It's 83 miles and, if we're lucky with traffic, less than 90 minutes, from our house in north St. Petersburg to the entrance of Disney.

Usually, we spend a night or two at one of the "on property" resorts. If you stay in a Disney hotel, you get free parking at the theme parks (a $14 savings) and access to Disney transportation. Again, the range of accommodations is daunting, with everything from the All Star value resorts (about $150 a night in peak season) to the spectacular Grand Floridian, where rooms can soar into the hundreds of dollars (or more).

I've had better luck getting hotel deals by calling a Disney reservation line (and, yes, it is irritating that Disney doesn't have a toll-free number) than by reserving online, but the online system has improved. The number is (407) 939-7429.

GENERAL TIPS

• Get to the parks a few minutes before opening time. Most open at 9 a.m., sometimes earlier for Disney hotel guests. Sure, you're on vacation. But so is everybody else. Let them sleep late. If you are there when the park opens, you can have your choice of rides without a wait.

• If the sign says the wait time is 20 minutes or less at any given ride, jump in line. The signs usually overestimate: 20 minutes often means less than 10.

• Use Fast Pass whenever possible. Insert your tickets into the Fast Pass machine at the front of the attraction and receive a time-stamped ticket. Arrive back at the attraction within the hour on the Fast Pass and go directly to the front of the line.

• You can only get one Fast Pass at a time or one every two hours, so it's best to reserve them for the things that are on your must-do list.

• Take snacks. If you're taking a stroller, coolers are okay, too. Now that we're past the stroller stage, I don't like to be weighed down by a lot of stuff, but it's nice to have a bag of peanuts or Goldfish to tide you over.

• Don't feel you must buy a bottle of water. Any of the restaurants will give you a large glass of ice water if you ask.

• In the rainy season, stop at a discount store and get everyone a poncho before you go inside the park. Not only are they cheaper than the ones sold at the parks, they are also distinctive. It's much easier to keep up with your group if you're all wearing blue or red rain gear amid a sea of people in Mickey ponchos.

PARK TIPS

Animal Kingdom

Arrive early here. Head first to Expedition Everest for Fast Passes. The thrill ride is popular and generates long lines.

Another advantage of arriving early: The animals are friskier before the day heats up. In the mornings, we've seen the male lion standing on his rock, roaring like crazy, and the Bengal tigers walk up to the glass and look us straight in the eye.

Magic Kingdom

Unless posing with the characters is your prime objective, walk past them at the entrance and on Main Street. There will be plenty of chances to catch up with them around the park.

The only time there isn't a line for Dumbo is during the first hour the park is open. If Dumbo is on your list, go directly there.

Magic Kingdom gripe: This is the site of the worst parking lot at Disney, one of Walt's few miscalculations. To get to the gate, you have to walk or take a tram to the "Transportation and Ticket Center," then get on a boat or monorail to reach the entrance. Since we like to start at Magic Kingdom and end the day at Epcot, we park at Epcot and ride the monorail from there straight to the door at the Magic Kingdom. Even if you don't go to Epcot, it's still a good parking strategy.

Other Magic Kingdom downers: Snow White's Scary Adventure (too tame for grown-ups and older kids, terrifying for little ones expecting happy, singing dwarfs) and Stitch's Great Escape (dark and lame with a blast of chili dog belch in your face).

Epcot

We first hit all the biggies in Future World, which usually opens at 9: Test Track, Soarin' (a simulated hang glider ride over California) and Turtle Talk with Crush (an interactive show starring the animated turtle from Finding Nemo). Then we hit the World Showcase, which circles a lake. It opens at 11 a.m. If we don't have a dinner reservation, we get a munchie in each country.

Feel free to laugh at this next tip; all our friends do. But then, after they go, they understand. If it's late afternoon when you begin, circle the World Showcase from Canada to Mexico. If you don't, the setting sun will be in your eyes all the way from Germany through France, and that's not fun.

Disney's Hollywood Studios

Because many of the big attractions at Disney's movie park are live shows — the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, Disney Junior – Live on Stage!, the Lights, Motors, Actions Extreme Stunt Show, The American Idol Experience, Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage — it's important to get a schedule and plot when to see what.

It's worth getting to the park when it opens to get Fast Passes for the popular rides Toy Story Mania! and the all-new Star Tours, which has just relaunched in 3D.

This is the best park for getting autographs and photos with the Disney characters. The Toy Story gang has a regular spot, and other characters position themselves in the plaza in front of the giant Sorcerer's hat throughout the day.

Disney's Hollywood Studios is host to the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights in the fall and Star Wars weekends in May. Unless you are a fan, avoid the park then.

There are four theme parks at Walt Disney World: Animal Kingdom, Disney's Hollywood Studios, Epcot and the Magic Kingdom. The resort also includes the Downtown Disney shopping, dining and entertainment area and Disney's Wide World of Sports. Interstate 4, Exit 62, west of Orlando. (407) 934-7639; www.disneyworld.com. Hours vary. Single-day admission to any of the four theme parks: $82 plus tax adults, $ $74 plus tax ages 3-9. Discounts for Florida residents. For "unofficial" information - including menus of all the restaurants — check out www.allearsnet.com. Least crowded times: January to President's Day, mid-April to late May, Labor Day to mid-November, early December.

ONE FAMILY'S FAVORITES

Dad's top 5

1. Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. The Aerosmith shtick is dated, but the ride's 0-to-60 launch into a corkscrew never gets old -- unlike, say, Steven Tyler.

2. Expedition Everest. Disney's last new coaster may not have the initial adrenaline rush of Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, but the backward, runaway train portion of the ride is almost as fun.

3. Test Track. The all-too-brief rush of a car hitting a high-banked turn at 60-plus mph is such a thrill that it makes you wonder: What must it be like racing on Daytona's high curves at 200?

4. Monorails. Nothing brings back childhood faster than the parks' iconic transportation.

5. Epcot. I've heard all the "it's-just-a-glorified-food-court" criticism of this park's World Showcase and, frankly, I don't care. I like it and it helps that there's always a cool international beer to be had on a hot afternoon.

— Peter Couture, Times staff writer

A tween's Top 5

1. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Yes, it's creepy, but it's very fun. I love that you never know how many drops there will be. And though I'm not one for waiting, the line is pretty cool.

2. Expedition Everest. I always know when the backward part is coming, but it's still fun to be rocketed forwards only to completely change direction within 10 seconds.

3. Test Track. I've ridden this ride so much, I can recite the preshow. It's not particularly thrilling, but it's plain ol' fun.

4. Mission: Space. I can't be the only one who loves that whole spinny wow-it-feels-like-I-can't-breathe feeling. And the 5-year-old inside me loves the games after the ride.

5. Toy Story Mania! It's a target-shooting game like Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin, but better. I just love interactive stuff. You can't forget the exclamation point at the end of Mania, though. It's too cool to have the exclamation point be neglected.

— Emma Couture, 12

A teen's Top 5

1. Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. The feeling of being pressed into your seat while you shoot through a loop and a corkscrew is great. No matter how much you ride it, it's always fun. I've been on it so many times I can practically recite the stupid preshow.

2. Expedition Everest. I love the view from the top of this coaster, going backward in the dark, and all of the special effects (except for that fake bird by the broken train tracks). Even the line for Expedition Everest is good. It winds through a museum dedicated to Mount Everest and the Yeti that supposedly lives there.

3. Tower of Terror. It has a great waiting area. You go through a deserted hotel lobby and then down into the boiler room before boarding a "service elevator." The elevator shoots up 13 stories and then drops. My favorite thing about Tower of Terror is that it is random, so you never know how many drops there will be or how long they will last.

4. Test Track. The preshow video is lame, as are some of the "tests," especially the environmental test chambers. The ride around the track at 65 mph makes up for all of that. It's especially fun at night.

5. Splash Mountain. Splash Mountain is my favorite ride at the Magic Kingdom. It's cute but still exciting. Sort of like if It's a Small World had a five-story drop.

— Hannah Couture, 18

Mom's Top 5

1. The Epcot Food and Wine Festival in the fall. Our kids are adventurous eaters, so we have great fun plotting which foods we're going to try from which countries. It's a good adults-only outing, too.

2. The Osborne Family Festival Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Christmastime. It's overdone and hokey, with faux snow falling on you as you walk down the movie backlot at Disney-MGM, but something about it always puts me in a holiday mood.

3. Big Thunder Mountain. I'll do Expedition Everest and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster once or twice each visit, but I love the old-fashioned thrill of riding Big Thunder with my hands in the air the whole way.

4. Family celebrations. Birthdays and anniversaries seem a little more magical at my favorite WDW restaurants, such as the California Grill.

5. Anything else the rest of the gang wants to do. I'm just along for the ride and the company.

Read these Walt Disney World tips before you buy tickets 07/27/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:51pm]

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