We were all set for a hiking trip out west over our children’s February school break – but then our daughter broke her ankle in January. You can guess from the title of this post where the story is going. Despite my hesitation to go to Disney World, my husband, as usual, made some compelling points that convinced me we should give it a roll. Since I wasn’t particularly excited about the trip, I found it difficult to motivate and research all the many ways to approach Disney. Instead I asked the advice of friends and spent minimal time poking around on the internet before settling on a plan. We would spend three nights at Fort Wilderness followed by two nights at the Four Seasons. We would hit a park a day for four days straight and then relax at the Four Seasons (which, it turns out, is a great place to relax…more on that below) for our last day. I am pretty sure volumes of books have been written about how best to navigate Disney World so my attempt here is to keep it simple, brief and straightforward. Basics are below; read on for details:
Getting There: JetBlue (jetblue.com) from LGA (also flies from JFK) to Orlando. Disney Magical Express Bus from airport to any Disney Resort – complimentary shuttle service (https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/guest-services/magical-express/).
Hotel: Three nights in a log cabin at Fort Wilderness – accommodations are simple and rustic (https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/cabins-at-fort-wilderness-resort/). We rented a golf cart to get around the property from the Bike Barn (reserve in advance at 407-824-2742). Two nights at the Four Seasons (http://www.fourseasons.com/orlando/) – not enough good words to describe this property – entire family loved it. NOTE – neither of these properties is walking distance from or on the monorail to any park. For us this was a perk but some might find it a drawback. If you want to be walking distance from or on the monorail to the parks, check out the Grand Floridian, The Contemporary and the Polynesian.
Parks: We visited one park a day, in this order: Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Epcot Center, Animal Kingdom.
To Eat: You need to reserve all restaurants in advance!! Our picks are below.
BREAKFAST – We pre-ordered breakfast items and snacks to our cabin at Fort Wilderness from a web site called gardengrocer.com. Worked out perfectly because we did not have to build in extra time to eat at a restaurant on mornings we went to the parks. Also pre-ordered plenty of healthy snacks to re-fuel with throughout the day.
LUNCH – We ate lunch at a park restaurant every day. As you might imagine there are plenty of fast food kiosks and food cart options if you want to grab something quick and eat on the run, but I found a sit-down meal to be a nice break from the frenetic pace of the day and I was impressed (it’s all relative-I expected a daily rotations of burgers, pizza and fries) by the food served at each restaurant. Meals were relatively quick – 45 minutes. Restaurants where we ate are: Magic Kingdom – lunch at Liberty Tree Tavern; Hollywood Studios – Hollywood Brown Derby for lunch; Epcot Center – lunch at Coral Reef; Animal Kingdom – lunch at Yak & Yeti. Final day we had lunch al fresco at the PB&G Grill at the Four Seasons.
DINNER – Dinner varied depending on the day’s activities. The first night we ate at the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue Show (at the Fort Wilderness Hotel, where we stayed), which served a decent all-inclusive meal during a fun, live show. Second night was California Grill at the top of the Contemporary Resort (https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/contemporary-resort/california-grill/). It is a very short walk from the Magic Kingdom. We had a terrific meal there – food, service and views were unbeatable as far as Disney goes. From the restaurant you can see the Magic Kingdom Fireworks show. Next night we ate dinner at Mama Melrose Italian at Hollywood Studios after the end of a long day spent visiting the park. The pizza was delicious. The last two nights we ate at the Four Seasons – first night at Capa, a steakhouse on the roof, and our final evening we at at Ravello, their Italian restaurant. Both were wonderful.
Other Activities: Most hotels are chock full of kids activities and pools and some have live entertainment in the evening, such as the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue (https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/cabins-at-fort-wilderness-resort/hoop-dee-doo-musical-revue/) at Fort Wilderness. Downtown Disney has a boardwalk full of restaurants and entertainment, including Cirque de Soleil. Universal Studios is about a 30 minute drive – it is not part of Disney World but does feature the very popular Harry Potter World (https://www.universalorlando.com/harrypotter/). Kennedy Space Center (https://www.kennedyspacecenter.com/) is approximately 45 minutes from Disney World. Legoland (http://florida.legoland.com) is about the same distance and I hear it’s especially fun for younger kids (up to 5 or 6 years old). Also, a friend mentioned that Winter Haven Park, near Legoland, is beautiful and worth checking out if you venture that way.
Nature: If you’re looking for nature, there are actually quite a few natural springs in the area (within an hour’s drive) where you can kayak, canoe, hike and swim. While not part of our itinerary, I’ve been told you can see lots of sea life indigenous to the area on these outings, especially manatees. Our tour guide (described below, in “Tip”) mentioned her favorite park in the area is Blue Spring (https://www.floridastateparks.org/park/Blue-Spring). I’ve also heard the air boat tours in the area are super fun and educational (http://www.orlandoairboattours.com/index.php).
Tip: If you are willing to splurge, it is well worth your while to hire a private guide to help you navigate the ins and outs of the parks. We were lucky enough to get a fun, young, bundle of energy named Renee, through a company called Michael’s VIP Tours (Michaelsvips.com or 407-445-7253). Renee was all smiles all the time and super warm to our kids from the get go. She arrived at each park well before opening time so that we would be first in line for admission. She organized all of our timed fast passes (everyone gets a limited number with purchase of tickets to each park) so that we had practically no waits even at the hottest attractions. She whisked us to where we needed to be and paced out our days very well. Michael’s VIP, the company she works for, arranged all of our dining reservations during our stay. They also arranged cars for us in the mornings so we could arrive at the parks quickly rather than sitting on the Disney Express bus (a complimentary shuttle that makes stops at all parks and all Disney Resort hotels so it can take time to get to your destination). We certainly could have figured out these parks on our own (print out maps beforehand on the parks’ web sites) but Renee’s guidance made our visit infinitely smoother and more enjoyable. This service charges by the hour and is not inexpensive so you might want to specify in advance how many hours you want your guide so they can then plan for you in the most effective way.
For more details about our trip, see below.
We flew Jet Blue from LGA to Orlando and then took the Disney Magical Express bus from the Orlando airport to Fort Wilderness. The bus is complimentary and I had heard it’s a fun introduction to the wonder of Disney because it shows a video highlighting some of the attractions at the parks. It was easy, direct and organized. If you are staying at a hotel within Disney World you can arrange it prior to your trip through your hotel, your “my disney experience” account or at https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/guest-services/magical-express. Disney will then label your luggage with special tags so that after your flight you don’t need to deal with baggage claim. They collect your luggage from the airport and deliver it to your hotel room within a few hours of your arrival.
Fort Wilderness is huge property – several hundred acres – with a campground and log cabins for accommodations. We thought it would be fun for the kids to have a rustic experience and had heard it was situated in a quiet, forested area which sounded like it could be a nice respite from the lights, noise and action of the parks.
We stayed in a log cabin, which was cute and simple. If you are accustomed to luxury accommodations, you’ll need to readjust your expectations. It had one bedroom with a bunk bed and a full bed, which was plenty big enough for our three children, one full bathroom and a smallish living room and kitchenette/dining area. In the living room was a full size murphy bed where my husband and I slept. I won’t go into details about the quality of the murphy bed but let’s just say we didn’t have the best night’s sleep. We rented a golf cart to get around the property, which was really fun, if not a little superfluous.
I had pre-ordered (two weeks in advance) snacks and breakfast items from a service called gardengrocer.com. When we checked into our cabin, the food had already arrived. It worked out well because park mornings start early and we didn’t have to build in extra time for breakfast at a restaurant, plus we had semi-healthy snacks to keep us going throughout the day. The first night we went to the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue Show at Fort Wilderness.
It is a hokey and fun family-style Western show with singing and dancing that takes place while the audience, seated at tables, is served a huge all-inclusive dinner. Then it was off to bed in anticipation of a busy few days ahead! It would have been great to spend some time during the day at Fort Wilderness because the property offers so much – horseback riding, archery, boat rentals (it is located on the water), bike rentals, nightly campfires and movies and what I hear is a great pool. However, we did not get to take advantage of these amenities because the following few days were jam packed. I would probably opt to stay here again only if we were actually going to take part in the property’s activities during daylight hours.
Specific park highlights are below, but it’s worth noting that in general the parks were all clean and well-run with incredibly helpful staff and better dining options than I had expected. You can rent strollers at every park in case of an unforeseen meltdown midday and/or if you want to leave your own stroller behind. The first week of February was a great time of year to visit because the weather was beautiful – crisp mornings and evenings with warm, sunny afternoons where we could peel off the layers – and the parks did not seem too crowded. I cannot stress enough the importance of arriving EARLY. In fact, our private guide, Renee, arrived well before the parks opened each day to wait in line and make sure we were first in at opening. Renee also helped us navigate our way through the parks in the most strategic manner. Having Renee was a HUGE luxury and her guidance (and great energy!) made our experience seamless. She knows every park inside and out and she scheduled out our days in advance so we could get to the most coveted attractions and confirm our entry into our top choices…all with minimal or no waits in any lines.
Day 1 – Magic Kingdom from 8:30am-5pm. At this park, our favorites were the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor, Enchanted Tales with Belle, Thunder Mountain and the nostalgic It’s a Small World ride. Space Mountain is a classic here as well that you don’t want to miss unless your kids are fearful of roller coasters in the dark. I think the Hall of Presidents is great for older kids and Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress was interesting and, dare I say, somewhat educational. Disney’s PhilharMagic, Peter Pan’s Flight and Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin are fun as well if you have time. We were disappointed by The Haunted Mansion. This is a good night to eat at the California Grill (https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/contemporary-resort/california-grill/) because it’s a short walk from the Magic Kingdom and you can head straight to dinner from the park.
Day 2 – Hollywood Studios from 8:30am-6:30pm. Highlights of this park were the Indiana Jones Stunt Show, the Frozen Sing-a-long (even if you’re tired of Frozen, don’t miss it-it’s so entertaining and funny!!), Star Wars Jedi Training Academy (realistic “training” for your little Jedi onstage with appearances by Darth Vader and Storm Troopers), Star Tours Ride (awesome simulated spaceship ride) and the Great Movie Ride (both informative and fun, this ride travels back in time to give you a history of film by genre-watch out for the gangsters!!). The kids also enjoyed the Beauty and the Beast show (a 20 minute take on the Broadway play). My husband and I were super impressed by the talented casts in each of the shows/attractions.
Day 3 – Epcot Center from 8:30am-4:30pm. Favorite attractions here were Soarin’ (4D ride that transports you to California so you feel like you’re in a hot air balloon cruising over the entire state), Fast Track (create your own virtual race car and then take an actual version for a ride, including some adrenaline-inducing bursts of speed), Mission: Space, Spaceship Earth and strolling through the different countries in the World Showcase – especially the live entertainment throughout the day in each “country” – make sure to look at their daily schedule and plan accordingly. Loved that the people working in the different countries were actually native to that country.
Day 4 – Animal Kingdom from 9:30am-2pm; back to hotel (Four Seasons) for swimming and relaxing. We all loved the Kilimanjaro Safari here and walking through the African region where we got to see a live performance of African drummers and dancers. The Festival of the Lion King was a great spectacle reminiscent of the Broadway play. It’s Tough to Be a Bug was a fun attraction as well. We would have liked to spend more time in the Asia section of the park but the kids were petered out by lunchtime. Animal Kingdom is great because there is actually “culture” in the Africa and Asia regions. I was amazed by how well the safari captured the different habitats of the animals on view – it kind of felt real! Also the architecture of the structures in Asia and Africa were an impressive reproduction of the feel of these countries, as well as the restaurants, the live performances and of course all the animals in their various “Asian” and “African” habitats.
Day 5 – Swim and relax at Four Seasons until departure. The Four Seasons was a real treat in every way. We had two beautiful, modern adjoining rooms overlooking Magic Kingdom (great for watching the nightly fireworks show at MK). Upon our arrival to the rooms, there were pirate’s costumes for the boys and a princess costume for our daughter laid out on their beds.
The service could not have been more friendly. In fact at dinner one night at Ravello (their Italian restaurant), the chef came out to talk with my son to create his favorite dish, which was not on the menu. The outdoor space at the Four Seasons is just beautiful. The layout and landscaping are so inviting that we took several walks around the property admiring the gardens.
They have several pools (a lazy river pool, a pool with water fountains, a family pool and an adults-only pool) and two immaculate kids clubs that cater to varying age ranges.
One of our favorite activities at the hotel was the outdoor “playroom” overlooking the pools that had pool tables, ping pong tables, life-size connect four, Russian toss and other games that kept all of us busy for hours. On our last day we had lunch at the outdoor cafe, PB&G. With the sun shining down on our backs, the warm breeze all around us and servers as accommodating as could be, I thought to myself, I’ve gotta hand it to those folks in Central Florida – they’ve created something pretty magical for the whole family.