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.
Over the past 10 years, Disney World has become part of our family experience. We've spent more than 100 days there. 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.
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 $10 savings) and access to Disney transportation. Again, the range of accommodations is daunting, with everything from the All Star value resorts (about $100 a night in peak season) to the spectacular Grand Floridian, where rooms soar beyond $350.
I've had better luck getting hotel deals by calling a Disney reservation line at (407) 934-7639 (and, yes, it is irritating that Disney doesn't have a toll-free number) than by reserving online.
WHAT TO EAT
Our favorite places for full meals: Boma at the Animal Kingdom Lodge (a buffet of African foods); the Rose and Crown pub in the United Kingdom section of Epcot; the Biergarten restaurant in the Germany section of Epcot; and the '50s Prime Time Cafe at Disney-MGM.
Favorites for lunch or light meals, places with something other than cheeseburgers and chicken tenders: The Harbor House at the Magic Kingdom (salads, clam chowder, hummus sandwiches, poached chicken for the kids); the ABC Commissary at Disney-MGM (tabbouleh wraps, Cuban sandwiches, chicken curry); the Tusker House at Animal Kingdom (turkey wraps, rotisserie chicken, grilled salmon) and the Sunshine Seasons food court at Epcot (sushi, salads, flatbreads).
Our favorite character meals:
- The Garden Grill at Epcot with Mickey and Friends. The food is homestyle (fried catfish, flank steak, rotisserie turkey) and the characters come to you. No missing Mickey while you're at the buffet.
- Crystal Palace at the Magic Kingdom with Pooh and friends. This one is a buffet, but the wide selection of food (prime rib, adobo pork, salmon, peel-and-eat shrimp and more) plus the pretty room make it fun. We often schedule this for 4 or 5 p.m., a cool early dinner after a long, warm day.
- Breakfast with Chef Mickey at the Contemporary Resort. Again, it's a buffet, but it's fun to watch the monorail pass overhead while you eat Mickey waffles. We've celebrated a number of birthdays here.
- 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.
The only time there isn't a line for Dumbo at the Magic Kingdom is during the first hour the park is open. If Dumbo is on your list, go directly there.
- 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 $3 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. 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 yellow Mickey ponchos.