Camping at Disney is always in tents: (get it? INTENSE! In tents!? Okay, okay let's move on)
We stayed at the Campsites at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort for the 10 days we were in the Orlando area. The cost of the campsite is around $90/night for up to 12 guests! That's pricey for a campsite, but incredibly affordable for a Disney property. There is also no charge for parking. Don't expect everything at the campsite to be a steal though. Bottled cokes are $3.50 at the snack bar and washers in the laundry mat are $3.00 per load. Speaking of laundry, the laundry facilities are a major plus. The bathhouses are clean and accessible and the amenities at the resort are first rate (more on this in a bit). Three major bonuses of staying on a Disney property are the free Disney transportation (adorable boats, reliable buses and the futuristic monorail were like bonus rides to my 2-8 year-old crowd), Magic Hours and Magic Bands. Magic hours allow resort guests to enter the park early or stay late when the general public cannot enter. Magic bands are, well, magic! They allow you access to your cabin, gate at the resort, tickets and fast passes in the parks and can be linked to a credit card for easy payment in the parks and resorts. Our family stayed in a travel trailer and tent. The weather (in mid-October) was delightful, but rain could have easily complicated things. Staff and service at the resort was Disneyrific. We asked for an additional picnic table to accommodate our large group and one was delivered to our site just 30 minutes later. Overall I would return to Fort Wilderness in a heartbeat.
Disney by the Dozen: Our goal for the week was for each child to be safe, happy and get to ride/see/experience something they dreamed of. And we did it! My parents bought us adorable matching Mickey Mouse shirts to wear the first day. We soon realized that it was much easier to keep track of our group in the shirts and decided to wash them each night and wear them every day. It also made getting up and out the door easier, as everyone simply grabbed their clean shirt off the pile for the day. Wearing matching shirts also alerted others that we were traveling in a group. It seemed to make people less likely to push through our group when in crowds and helped Disney "cast members" keep our group together on rides. Our kids had never been to Disney and really didn't know what to expect. We asked each of them what ONE thing they really wanted to do and made those things a priority. This list of wishes gave us a loose schedule to follow and we could remind Reuben that he would happily wait in line for Memaw's pick, It's a Small World, because she waited 70 minutes to ride his pick, Pirates of the Caribbean. We ended up staying together all day, every day. The only exceptions to this were for a few times when one of us had to sit with the baby while he napped in a stroller or when a few of us wanted to go on a scarier ride*.
*A dear friend gave us a copy of a Disney Vacation Guide book. This became an incredible resource for first time visitors such as ourselves. If a child felt nervous about a ride they could read the description in the book and make an informed decision about whether they would like to ride or not. It also gave them reading material while waiting in lines.
Picnic Power: Dining at Disney parks and resorts can easily cost more than your park admission for the day. We chose to have leisurely mornings at the campsite eating a hearty breakfast and packing a picnic lunch for later in the day. Although we ordered pizza one night when we returned home, we usually had something waiting in the crock pot. We were so exhausted by the time we got home we ate and fell into bed. Our kids went through incredible amounts of snacks in the park each day, so we made sure to have plenty on hand they could grab from the basket under the stroller without even asking. This kept my campers happy and my budget under control. We packed dry roasted peanuts, dried fruit, crackers, apples, cuties, beef jerky and gogurt (freeze gogurt or capri suns the night before and use them to keep your fruit and sippy cups cool in an insulated lunch bag). We brought in nalgene bottles we kept clipped to the stroller and our belt loops. Any restaurant with a fountain will give you cups of free ice water, which we transferred to our bottles. Of course we still splurged on Mickey-shaped ice cream and Dole Whips.
Take a Day Off: If at all possible do not visit parks on consecutive days. Spend a long day at a park, then spend a day relaxing by the pool and napping. Our resort offered a dance party by the pool, silly recreation games, sports, heated pool and hot tub and nightly sing-along, campfire and outdoor movie. Truly, our kids enjoyed relaxing at the resort as much as being in the parks. This also gives everyone a chance to recharge, regroup, do laundry and grocery shop on a non-park day.
Stimulation is Exhausting: There is so much to see, smell, touch, hear and experience at the parks you may find yourself exhausted just trying to take it all in. We have a couple of kids who are sensory sensitive and I found that they needed time and space to decompress. My 8 year old climbed into one of the strollers and pulled the canopy down to make a quiet place for herself. If your people are wound up take a long ride on the railroad or monorail or find a quiet corner table off the beaten path to rest your eyes and escape the jostling crowds.
Don't Miss the Shows! There are many rides that are a delightful 4 minutes after a 45 minute wait, but shows will definitely give you the most bang for your line-waiting-buck. Get in line at least 30 minutes before a show begins to get good seats. For parades and fireworks you may need to stake out your spot at least two hours in advance. We spread out beach towels to have a clean, cool spot to sit and to help save space for our group. We never had a hard time finding a few weary volunteers in our group willing to sit and reserve our spots. We brought umbrellas in case of rain, but they ended up being a nice way to provide shade before the afternoon parade began. Our favorite shows were Lion King and Finding Nemo at Animal Kingdom. Don't miss the Festival of Fantasy Parade or Wishes Nighttime Spectacular at Magic Kingdom. These shows and parades were BY FAR the most magical, memorable parts of our visit.
Fanny Packs: I kid you not, I brought a fanny pack out the first day as a joke and ended up wearing it all week. It was just big enough for my phone, map, chapstick, snack and bandaids and I could slide it around to the front without taking it off for rides. When one of our strollers came up missing I was very grateful that I didn't have a purse stashed in the bottom like I often do. (Google stroller re-parking at Disney if you're wondering how I could misplace a giant stroller)
Getting to the Park is Half the Battle: Save yourself some stress and go ahead and accept that you will spend half of your effort/energy on any day just trying to get everyone up, fed, dressed and to the park. We thought we would be there for morning Magic Hours every day... but we barely made it the parks by noon most days! Even if we were out the door by 9:00 am we still had a 5 minute walk to the bus, 10 minute wait for the bus, 5 minute bus ride to the dock, 10 minute wait for the boat, 15 minute boat ride to the monorail... you get the idea. No amount of barking, dragging, speed walking or line-cutting can save you from this reality. There's nothing magical about Magic Hours if everyone is a cranky mess by the time you get to the gates.
Don't Plan Away the Joy: I got really stressed out a week before Disney. I worried that our fast passes were too late in the day. That our lack of a "touring plan" would wreck our week and leave us in line-waiting-purgatory. When we arrived in Orlando we were greeted with a "s'mores kit" a friend had sent to our campsite with a simple note that said "slow down and enjoy the moment". She works for Disney, so I took her at her word. So I stopped stressing about the details. We played Disney charades while waiting in line (and had so much fun that the kids groaned when it was our turn to board the ride). Instead of marching from attraction to attraction we stopped to listen to the barber shop quartet or cool off in the shade and people watch. I watched the wonder on my kids' faces by the light of fireworks. And that was the most magical attraction of all.
Here are a few highlights from our trip: