So, we were the crazy family who braved Disney World during New Years. Absolutely, it would have been better to do Disney during the so-called off season (I hear this is October and fall in general), but like many families, ours comes together from multiple states and two countries during the holidays. I know there are many, many planners out there who devise their Disney trip months in advance (I was one of them), so I thought I’d share our experience for any such reader who stumbles upon this. Disclaimer: this post is mostly for the Disney lover and those who are curious about vacationing at DW with a large family.
We decided upon Disney about 7 months prior. My generous mother-in-law made the executive decision to treat all (8+baby!) of us, and I promised to act as the travel guide — orchestrating reservations, ride schedules, room selections, meals, etc. Now, it might not seem that intensive, but anyone who has planned a Disney trip for a large group of people knows about the many great details involved (I also have friends who simply booked a room and a plane ticket and showed up at the parks — their breeziness worked just fine for them, but I don’t have it in me to wing Disney). So, after determining our dates, I promptly booked us 3 rooms (one per family) at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge (AKL). When a smaller group of us did Disney 2 years ago, we stayed at the Contemporary — directly across from the Magic Kingdom. Its proximity to the parks and view of the fireworks was appreciated, but as soon as we learned that we could room alongside giraffes and zebras, we were sold on AKL. I booked 3 Savannah rooms and requested they be connecting (turned out they weren’t, but we were placed pretty much next door to one another). The savanna rooms offer a view onto, yup, the savanna, so you can see all the African animals from your balcony. These rooms are a bit pricier, but we agreed that if you’re paying to stay at AKL, you’re really there to see the animals — and not just from the common areas. If you want to save that money for something else, the basic rooms are equally lovely inside, but you’ll need to head out to one of the many hotel balconies or boardwalks to see a bevy of Africa’s “wild” life. Do note that AKL tries to conserve resources, so the rooms are dim and on the smaller side. The lodge itself is truly wonderful, and it’s predicated on education and awareness. All cast members are knowledgeable about African culture or animals (and most are interns from Africa who seem to really enjoy their job), and there’s always an enriching activity for adults and kids to partake in. The NYE party at the lodge may have provided the most fun we had the whole trip; we all danced the night away to a loud and talented African band, all the while following the moves of a beautiful African dancer (it was a comfortable and welcoming environment — even for the non-dancer). I’d allow at least one day for staying on campus at ALL so you can soak in all that the resort has to offer. We didn’t, and regret it.
Booking our rooms when we did (about 6 months before check-in) was smart. Many dates surrounding the winter holidays were already unavailable last summer. I had read that the 180 day mark was a good time to start making reservations, so I did. 180 days out is when all restaurants open up reservations, and if you’re wanting to try any of the coveted spots, you’ve got to get on it early. Download the Disney Experience app — its awesome before and during the trip — to make all your advanced dining reservations and fastpass selections. And because we were staying at Disney, 180 days before our check-in was when we could book reservations for our entire stay (even if our check-out date was more than 180 days out). For a party of 9 during New Years, no planning was really too soon. We ate at AKL’s Sanaa for NYE dinner (around sunset) and it was a wonderful experience watching the animals from our table. The food is Indian, and very good. In fact, we all felt that AKL offered the best food at an American hotel that we’ve tried. We also reserved the Tusker House (sweet character dining experience at Animal Kingdom Park) and Cinderella’s Royal Table (to get in there, I tasked my mother-in-law with calling Disney reservations at 7am EST exactly 180 days out as it’s often impossible to score a reservation for this financially indulgent meal). I’m now a champion of both character restaurants, which are super different (Tusker is laid back and provides an impeccably and artistically gritty environment to hang with Mickey and the clubhouse crew, and Cinderella’s Royal Table is a ballroom feast, during which you’re made to feel like royalty and gossip with princesses). Feel free to leave a comment asking for a review of those two dining experiences, or head over to Trip Advisor to read this and this.
Our basic schedule was as follows:
Day 1 (NYE): check-in mid-afternoon ➡️ hang by pool ➡️ head to savanna dinner at Sanaa.
Day 2: Casual and light breakfast at pool-level counter service restaurant ➡️ resort time ➡️ head to Animal Kingdom Park via shuttle ➡️ Tusker House lunch reservation ➡️ fast pass rides (Kali River Rapids, Finding Nemo Musical, Dinasaur, Safari) ➡️ explore park ➡️ sunset safari ➡️ evening light shows at the Tree of Life.
Day 3: Breakfast on site at Boma (delicious and bountiful) ➡️ shuttle to Magic Kingdom ➡️ Fastpass rides (Peter Pan’s Flight, Enchanted Tales with Belle, Thunder Mountain, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train) and other faves (Small World, Mad Hatter, Flying Carpets, Tomorrowland Speedway, Winnie the Pooh, Ariel’s Grotto). 💤💤 Everyone but those in my immediate family were totally wiped out by the afternoon, so while they went back to the resort, we stayed at MK for the evening. It was awesome when the sun set, the castle illuminated, and the heat broke. Crowds were still heavy, but the entire park assumed a less frantic energy. So we took advantage and kept rebooking fastpass rides geared toward R, our 4.5-year-old princess-in-training.
Looking back: I regret using fast passes for the whole family on Peter Pan’s Flight. It’s a classic, but several of us adults would have preferred Space Mountain sans kids, which was overbooked with 2-hour-long queues all day and no day-of fast pass availability. We also should have divided and conquered at Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios to experience popular “adult” rides (Expedition Everest, Haunted Mansion) with fast pass. Instead, I mostly kept the fam bam together.
Day 4: Breakfast buffet at Boma ➡️ pack up and check-out ➡️ shuttle to Hollywood Studios ➡️ boys await long queue for Tower of Terror while girls go to Frozen Sing Along ➡️ whole family fast passes it to Toy Story Mania, followed by Star Tours (for those tall enough) and Disney Junior: Live on Stage (our preschoolers loved this clubhouse-like show).
And that’s it! We then drove a few hours south, back to finish up our home vacation in Boca. It was a short trip, but an appropriate amount of days in order to accommodate everyone’s Disney desires, limits and pocket books. A lot of research and consideration went into fast pass selections, and while I mostly nailed it for the kiddos, the adults could have split up and braved a few more thrill rides. But alas, all were happy in the end, and we will return! We just may stay at AKL again, too!