Welcome to one of my favorite kinds of posts to make – one that is purely about my family and our memories because it’s my blog and I can occasionally treat it like a space to document our experiences so I have them forever. And as long as I take nice photos that I can include, I think it fits 🙂
I absolutely have to start with the fact that Spirit of Adventure Travel made this trip what it was. If you know anything about Disney, you know that there is an *art* to the Disney way. And that art rapidly evolves, so to people who don’t keep up with the Disney blogs, just a short hiatus from visiting is long enough to not know what you’re talking about anymore. I personally had not been to Disney World since February of 2020 (when we didn’t know how lucky we were to squeeze this trip in before the world changes). So in a span of 3 years, plus the remnants of Covid restrictions, plus the rapid advances in technology, plus the fact that I’d be including our 5-year-old in a trip that had previously been Disney-adults-only, it was clear that I was no longer someone who could efficiently navigate all things WDW. Time to bring in a pro.
I reached out to Shannon, the CMO (Chief Magic Officer) of Spirit of Adventure Travel before we even had a firm idea of when we wanted to do my son’s first Walt Disney World trip. I knew I needed help from Step Negative Five, and Shannon was the perfect person to talk to. You: “Oh wow, I know Disney, so I’ll just book everything myself to save some money” I can’t begin to tell you how wrong you are! Again, Disney policies change so frequently that unless you are full-time watching WDW blogs, you don’t know the most efficient way to do anything. So who do I trust? A bonus for me is Shannon’s son is a year older than our son, so she was able to give SUPER specific advice, in terms of what to try with different rides, in terms of considerations for having a kiddo that age in tow, in terms of what to expect as opposed to a Disney adult trip. Plus she was in the Disney College Program when she was in school at K-State, and she learned the ins and outs of Disney hospitality, Disney tips and tricks, Disney magic, and all that wonderful stuff during her time there. Plus she has visited Disney properties 30+ times OUTSIDE of her time at the college program. But all SoAT agents are there to make your trip perfect and have the right experience to plan the experience of a lifetime.
My husband works in education, so we were torn about how to find the balance of booking a slower time for the parks but also booking when it wasn’t super inconvenient for my husband to be gone (since school breaks are the busy times anywhere). She gave us 3-4 good time frames to choose from, and my family took a look at our calendars to find the best one for us. Picking our date range was the hardest part of the planning process because once we had done that, we told Shannon our dates, what we were wanting, and everything else was taken care of from there!
Okay I’m done obsessing over Spirit of Adventure Travel (but I’ll still note when they were a key part of a memory).
We went at the beginning of May and stayed at a value-level resort (Pop Century to be precise – which Shannon recommended because it was in the value-level class, but it has access to the Skyliner, which significantly speeds up access to EPCOT and Hollywood Studios).
We had 4 days of park tickets, all with Park Hopper added on; we went on a Friday – Monday.
We purchased Genie+ for all of us each day.
We added PhotoPass+ which I had never done before and will NEVER NOT DO AGAIN because it was so worth it!
Since the Magic Express is no longer an option (and why not?! That thing was amazing!), we used a private car service (recommended personally by Shannon) that tracked our flights, knew when we were delayed, knew we needed a booster seat, texted me when we landed with his exact location, and delivered us to our resort. He also picked us up at 5:00 am to return home. We originally planned on a 5:30 pickup time, but he suggested earlier, and we were SO glad he did so – there was a 60+ minute wait to get through security at the Orlando airport, and he knew the traffic patterns well enough to know we’d need extra time, even first thing on a Tuesday morning. He was the reason we weren’t stressed when we saw the lines.
We got in late Thursday night (actually Friday morning, so it was after midnight, and I was able to get Genie+ for all of us before going to bed), so we let ourselves get some sleep, missing rope drop (something I had to come to terms with knowing this trip revolved around a 5-year-old and not me). Once we were up, I got Lightning Lane passes for Peter Pan, we got breakfast at our resort dining hall – Henry had the Mickey waffles OF COURSE, and he loved them. We hopped on a bus to Magic Kingdom and the anticipation grew as we got closer and closer. My personal rule is I keep my eyes diverted from Cinderella’s Castle until I am actually on Main Street (even though you can see the top of it from the bus or the monorail as you’re coming in). I didn’t enforce this rule for our kiddo, but sheer luck kept him from seeing anything. So we made a big deal of turning the corner from the entrance onto Main Street to see it for the first time. It did not disappoint! His reaction was priceless. It made my heart so happy.
As we walked down Main Street, we realized a stage show was about to begin, so we snagged another Lightning Lane pass, watched the show, hit up Peter Pan, and then headed on to the Barnstormer, Henry’s first roller coaster. We were off to a great start! Over the course of our first day, we watched Mickey’s Philharmagic (a must-see!!!!) and Monster’s Inc. Laugh Floor, drove cars at the Speedway, and we rode Buzz Lightyear Space Rangers somewhere between 5-15 times, It’s A Small World, the Haunted Mansion, plus time for a few of the adults to sneak away for Space Mountain. There was a midday break back at the hotel to catch up on a little rest – this was definitely a change of pace for how I’m used to experiencing Disney World, but it was so helpful! Then we headed back to MK. We got a great spot for the nighttime castle/fireworks show, and watching Henry watch it
It was everything I could have hoped for. It was MAGIC. It always is. We were very disappointed that there’s not currently a nighttime light parade and Tinkerbell doesn’t fly anymore, but it would have taken a lot more than that to ruin our day.
We were definitely exhausted from our late night Thursday and looooong (but magical!) day Friday, so again, we didn’t set alarms. But none of us are late sleepers, so thanks to that plus the quick access due to the Skyliner, we got to Hollywood Studios (MGM for us old timers!) barely after rope drop. We had a Lightning Lane (LL) for Toy Story Mania (thanks to another day of Genie+, which is totally worth it!!), so we booked it to Toy Story Land and jumped right on to our first ride. Like Buzz Lightyear Space Rangers, Toy Story Mania is a ride/game where riders/players earn points for hitting targets. Buzz was a hit on day one, and Toy Story Mania was just as much a favorite! And just like Buzz, I can’t get enough of Mania either. Kids, adult, doesn’t matter – these rides are the best
We had a few LL passes throughout the day, including Muppets 3D (great air-conditioned show!), Tower of Terror (little man 5-year-old was NOT a fan, but I’m obsessed and have always been), and we watched Beauty and the Beast (an absolute must-see when at HS), Indiana Jones (ditto what I just said – these shows the BEST), and the exhibit at Lighting McQueen’s Racing Academy. Again, we took a midday break (necessary again), and then we headed back to HS, where we made the executive decision to skip the nighttime show (although I’ve been before and it’s wonderful!) so that we could ride our favorite ride (Toy Story Mania) repeatedly with no line. And again, during this time, my mom and kiddo rode Mania while some of us adults snuck away to ride a few Star Wars ride, like one of the newest ones with NO LINE AT ALL.
This morning we HAD to set an alarm because AHHHHHH we were going to have breakfast with Mickey and friends! Want to know how Shannon with Spirit of Adventure Travel made this perfect, too? As mentioned earlier, the efficient ways to navigate Disney change frequently, and it had been a couple decades since I had last done a character meal. A couple DECADES – I had NO idea how to book this; last time I visited WDW, there were rules for when and how you could reserve fast passes and dinner reservations, and this time around, those timelines and processes had changed drastically. To book dining reservations like a character breakfast, your booking window opens a set amount of days before your
reservation begins at 6am EST/5am CST. Did I keep track of when that amount of days came due? Or get up at 5am that morning? NO. Absolutely not. I was sleeping soundly and unaware of this deadline. But I did wake up to an email one morning (that was not on my radar) saying we were confirmed for our first choice of character meals. Soooooo yea, Shannon is amazing. (Did I mention you don’t pay ANY EXTRA?!?!?)
But okay we had our reservation for breakfast at The Contemporary. We showed up, checked in, and sat in a couple booths for probably 4 minutes before we were called up! We were all way too excited about the characters coming by our table to fill up our plates just yet (for those who have been there before – the character breakfasts have traditionally been buffet-style. During Covid, they changed this to a set menu, but rejoice because the buffet is back!!) So we stayed at our table, and shortly after sitting down, none other than Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto came to our table! Each character took time to greet Henry, sign his autograph book, give him hugs and/or hi-fives, and let all four adults at the table get our fill of photos.
When I FIRST visited Disney World at age 7, my parents scheduled this very same character breakfast at this same resort. That trip was almost 30 years ago, so I have only a handful of VERY strong memories. This breakfast is one of them. I remember the lighting of the room we were in. I remember the complete magic of the characters coming to OUR table – like JUST FOR US. I remember getting them to sign my autograph book. I remember my cheeks hurting. I remember my parents smiling. I remember my brother, who at 10.5 was maybe a *bit* too cool for his first Disney trip, even looking like he thought the whole thing was cool. Do I remember the food? ABSOLUTELY NOT. But apparently my dad did because as we were approaching this trip, he kept talking about how excited he was for the french toast at the character breakfast. To each their own, right? After we met everybody, we ate super yummy food and then on the way out, we got to meet Minnie, get her autograph, give her hugs, and get photos with her. THE BEST MORNING EVER.
When it was time to head to the parks, we took the bus from the Contemporary to Animal Kingdom (AK). We knew we had a half day at AK and a half day at EPCOT, so it was time to get going once we got there. We had a LL for the Kilimanjaro Safari which is a MUST-DO at AK – you’re on a safari jeep with about 15-20ish other guests and a guide who knows everything there is to know about all the animals on the property. You drive through basically a zoo without cages/exhibits/fences to see animals in recreations of their natural habitats. Of course with all animals, it’s hit and miss with what you see on any given trip, but we saw the following:
- Giraffes (close!)
- Ostriches (close!)
- Lions (a male and a female, both sleeping)
- A cheetah
- A zebra
- And so many more!
Post-safari, Henry got distracted by the drums in Africa, which gave me, Andy, and my dad the perfect opportunity to slip away to ride Expedition Everest (which we got a LL pass for and were on within a minute of getting to the ride). Then he and my mom came to meet up with us, we explored the Tree of Life of bit, and while we had intentions to do a few other things while we were there, we ended up doing a little shopping (for Henry, who loved the idea of buying a stuffy that was tied to a conservation fund and allowed him to give back with his purchase, so we bought a sweet giraffe and also donated some extra money to the fund). Then we decided that after a HUGE morning of excitement and day THREE of being gogogogogo, a midday rest was in order. We took the bus back, rested for a bit, and then hit the ground running to…
Bonus points if you know what EPCOT stands for. But I wish I had allotted more time for us here than half a day. Especially knowing we would be taking midday breaks that cut into park time. So once we took the Skyliner to EPCOT with the last half of our day, we needed to get a move on! We had LL for Soarin’, but we saw Daisy AND Minnie as we walked into the park, and of course we had to stop and take photos with both – plus get Daisy to sign our autograph book since she wasn’t at breakfast. So after that AMAZING stop, we moved as quickly as we could to The Land where Soarin’ is located. We made it in time (with about 2 minutes to spare on our LL pass) and headed onto the ride. With Henry’s previous reluctance toward some rides, I wasn’t sure how he would react to this one, but he LOVED it! And it was so cool to be able to connect different sites to things he knows from his own life, like understanding the Taj Mahal is in India, a country one of his friends is from; or understanding the pyramids of Egypt are the same ones his uncle sent photos from when he visited; or connecting the EPCOT ball to where he was at that moment. UGH if you’ve never been, this ride is SO cool.
Because we chose to do EPCOT with our second half of the day (which again, I wouldn’t suggest), several rides we wanted to do were ‘sold out.’ And that was a huge bummer. We did Soarin’, the butterfly room (that’s part of the Flower and Garden Festival that we were there for), Nemo and the Seas, and then toured the aquarium – which Shannon informed us is the 2nd biggest aquarium in the US. There were so many cool parts about the aquarium, especially if you take the time to read the placards and also do the scavenger hunt they provide. Did you know that clownfish never stray farther from their anemone (home) than ONE METER? So now think of the plot of Finding Nemo and how much more impactful that is!!
With Andy having to head back to KC and our limited time left in the night, we left EPCOT and Andy headed to the hotel to catch a cab, and the rest of us headed back to MK. We walked into MK knowing we had seen the nighttime spectacular (although I’m not against watching it many many times), and we went straight for the favorite ride of Henry (and maybe mine and my dad’s as well), Buzz Lightyear SpaceRanger, and we rode that as many times as we could while the crowds were watching the nighttime show (with one sneak away for me and my dad to ride Space Mountain again). Then we headed back to the hotel. Goodnight!
We knew we wanted to head back to MK for our last day, so we were there as close to rope drop as we had been to any park all week. We went straight to Buzz Lightyear (Space Ranger) and rode that as many times as we could before the line got longer. Then we got a LL pass for the Speedway. I rode that with my son, who ‘drove’ and loved every minute of it. We did LL for another Small World, another PhilharMagic, Ariel’s Under the Sea, and then Space Rangers again…about 7 times. Henry got the TINIEST pinch getting off the ride the last time we rode it, and an amazing cast member noticed and asked him if he would feel better getting straight back on the ride and going again. Of course he lit up and said yes! So we rode it again, he got a personal record score, and when we got off, that same worker was there with a certificate for a free Mickey Bar (ice cream). Day: made! So many cast members go above and beyond, and it made my heart so that happy that as much as Henry and I had talked about the true Magic that happens at Disney, he was the one who said, “sometimes it’s the people being really nice that make the magic!” Swoon.
By lunch time, we were pretty fried, and we hadn’t been to the resort pool yet, even though I knew Henry had been looking forward to that. So we got back to the resort, changed into swimwear, and jumped right into the pool. Once we’d had enough time in the sun, Henry hit up the arcade with my dad for a bit while my mom and I packed everything up for
our very early wake-up call the next morning. We enjoyed dinner and a relaxing night of finishing the resort scavenger hunt Henry had been given upon check-in. Then we went to collect his prize at the front desk and fell into bed.
Even though it was an early morning for everyone, our departure was very smooth. You can check-out on the app; then the driver Shannon had arranged for us was ready to pick us up at the front of the resort. Knowing Orlando International Airport like he does, he had actually suggested a slightly earlier pick-up time than we had originally agreed upon, and when we got to the airport, we were SO thankful for his advice! The security lines were 60-70 minutes long, but because of the built in time our driver had allowed us to have, there was no stress involved.
If you’ve made it this far, you get all the pixie dust! Like I said, most of this post was having a place to preserve an in-depth account of our first Disney trip, but I also hope there were a few kernels of advice, the biggest of which is to HIRE SHANNON WITH SPIRIT OF ADVENTURE TRAVEL!!! Our trip would not have come close to being as smooth, stress-free, and perfect if it had not been for her.