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26 Mar, Sunday
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Montreal Families

Making plans to visit Disney

I believe there are two kinds of people in the world: the ones who plan their Disney vacation and the ones who don’t. I suspected I might fall into the latter category when a visit to www.disney.com made my heart race. I was hoping for a few pointers on getting the most from our trip, which would be a celebration of my daughter’s 10th birthday.

Instead, I found checklists (geared toward mothers, who seem to be the people doing all the planning) and ways to create detailed maps and personalized plans for each day. Suddenly, I wasn’t just facing questions like how long to go and which parks to visit. No, I had to grapple with deeper issues like should we book a princess makeover at Cinderella’s castle or have breakfast with Mickey and Donald at the Animal Kingdom. Yikes.

When it became clear that I could easily spend a full week planning the trip, I started to simplify. The family decided it would be advantageous to stay at one of the on-site Disney hotels. We would have access to free shuttle service to the parks as well as special park hours just for us guests. We picked out the Caribbean Beach Resort, which featured pirate-themed rooms but, more importantly, had white sand beaches and six different pools. It seemed to offer the kind of quiet we might need before and after our days at the theme parks.

I also purchased Park Hopper Tickets, which would allow us to visit four parks in four days. To my mind, we were set. The details of what would happen each day would be worked out on an as-needed basis (say, the night before). But my girls saw it differently. Soon, they were busy online, figuring out what we could do and when. They sketched a daily schedule of which parks and water slides they wanted to visit, budgeting our time from the very first to the very last Disney minute.

The limits of that approach became clear when we arrived in Orlando. Our rooms weren’t ready—most aren’t until the late afternoon. So we stored our luggage and headed off to the Magic Kingdom, the first park on my children’s list. I couldn’t help but reminisce about my trip there in 1975, when the Magic Kingdom was the only place to go. Now, of course, you can visit the Animal Kingdom, Epcot Centre and Hollywood Studios, not to mention the fabulous downtown Disney and a handful of amazing water parks and resorts.

Despite its age, the Magic Kingdom still delights. We careened through the tunnels of the Space Mountain roller coaster, caught a show at Cinderella’s castle and sailed through a scary Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Then, we found out that Hollywood Studios would be open late for resort guests. We hadn’t planned on visiting two parks in one day, but we tossed caution — and my kids’ plans — to the wind and headed over for a ride on one of the fastest roller coasters at Disney.

The next day was chilly, so the girls nixed plans to visit the Disney Water Parks. Instead, we headed to the Animal Kingdom. We had discussed getting Fast Passes — which reduced wait times at rides by assigning you a specific time — but my daughters became sidetracked by the autograph sessions taking place. We spent a good two hours collecting autographs from their favourite Disney characters, which upended our plans to visit several rides.

My conviction that spontaneity is a key part of a Disney visit was only confirmed as I watched parents hustling their children from ride to ride, the little ones looking ever more tired by the gruelling schedule. And it seemed to me that at midday, a collective moan would emanate from all the little ones in the park, each one needing some downtime. Disney is overwhelming; driving your family to fulfilling all the goals on a checklist was not what I wanted. Disney is about making children’s dreams come true, a mantra repeated on T-shirts, paper cups, show stages and parades. But it can be surprisingly easy to confuse an adult’s dream with a child’s.

I thoroughly enjoyed taking a slower, let’s-see-what-the-day-brings approach and thought one park per day was about the right speed. Over our four-day visit, we managed to meet Mickey at the Animal Kingdom, see a princess show, participate in a Kim Possible spy mission game and go on plenty of rides. We had delightful meals that included food from various countries but we also had a relaxing morning swim at the beach in our resort.

No, we didn’t get to do the princesses’ breakfast and there were no makeovers for my girls. But you can’t “do” Disney in four days, nor a week, nor 10 days. A cousin who lives in Florida says you couldn’t even see it all in a month.

As we drove away from Orlando, we were already planning our next Disney trip, for our youngest daughter’s 10th birthday next year. But don’t get the wrong idea — we won’t be printing out any detailed maps or daily itineraries. Nope, the only things that is on the schedule is this: a spa visit for me after we come home.

See Mickey for less $$$

To keep park attendance figures up, Disney is offering plenty of freebies and discounts. Guests staying on site can receive free time at various video arcades, dinner discounts, free mini-golf and a clutch of other money saving coupons. For a complete list, visit http://disneyworld.disney.go.com and look under “Book” for special offers.

Resort prices range from under $100 per night off-season to several hundreds for luxury rooms at more upscale resorts. Keep in mind that shuttle services to the parks are sometimes slow, so renting a car will get you where you want to go faster. Staying on the resort entitles you to free parking in one of the vast lots that are connected to the parks by a shorter shuttle service.

It’s worth checking out the Orlando tourism board’s website for deals. They currently have a promotion, Bundles of Free Smiles, www.bundlesoffreesmiles.com where you can get discounts for popular attractions in the city.

One key to enjoying the parks is the famed Fast Pass. These cards, which are distributed at the popular rides, let you return to the ride at a given hour to bypass long lines. They work. For the Everest coaster, which has rumoured line-ups of two hours, we got a pass when we arrived at the park then returned and waited for only five minutes to get on it.

Save on airfare

As a rule, the further in advance you book, the cheaper the flight, but sometimes last-minute deals are worth the wait. Charter trips might give you a better deal, but regularly scheduled airlines sometimes have seat sales or rock-bottom prices in off-season, says Margo Pedersen, of Lara Travel in St. Laurent, who books more than 20 Disney vacations a year.

For families with smaller children, a direct flight from Montreal to Orlando is the way to go. Depending on the month, Air Canada and Air Transat will have direct flights.

Sometimes cheaper flights can be booked if you fly from Plattsburgh, NY (service is to Fort Myers; however, a three-hour drive from Orlando) or Burlington, VT (JetBlue flies to Orlando). Families will need to factor in driving times (at least one hour to Plattsburgh and a good two hours for Burlington) as well as wait times at the border, adds Pedersen.

For more information, call Lara Travel at (514) 341-1503.

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