Traveling with pre-teens does not enlist you in the early risers club, no matter how excited they are for the Disney experience. By day three of vacation, we got creative and hit play on “Hakuna Matata” and left them fumbling to get out of bed in the darkness to turn it off (having previously learned that if you open up the blinds there is a lot of vocalizing about how their eyes need to slowly adjust). We allowed them this win and sipped our coffee in peace before hair brushes, toothpaste (What do you mean you can’t find your toothbrush?) and sunscreen went flying across the room. Somehow we emerged triumphantly dressed and ready to hit the parks.

Disney Park day one: the Magic Kingdom

A later than anticipated start meant that we had to adjust our fast pass times. This was easily done by viewing attraction wait times on the My Disney Experience App. We were able to modify passes and exchange some in favor of the stand-by, or non fast pass lines that had less than 45 minutes of wait time. There was a point of confusion in thinking that we could reload extra fast passes as we used them; this was not the case. Once you use all three of your given fast passes, you are allowed one extra for the day, but that is it through the app.

Pre-planning goes a long way. Per Disney guidelines you are allowed to bring food and beverages (although not coolers) into the parks and I suggest that you do so as a bottle of water goes for $3.00 these days. All backpacks are searched, but even with that, lines for Will Call and to enter the parks moved fast. There is a Disney MagicBand that you can purchase for $12.95, or if you are an annual ticket holder or staying at an official Disney property, will be given to your group on arrival. These colorful waterproof bands can serve as room key, fast pass and reservation holder, link to MemoryMaker and even credit card. They are not essential however and we opted to use our ticket cards as a way to be scanned for permissible entrance to fast pass lines.

We learned as we went that the window of time in which to access a fast pass reservation at the Magic Kingdom was 10 minutes prior to or after the official reservation time. They were pretty strict about this and we did get turned away to wait for the accepted fast pass time once, which helped us budget time for the rest of the day.

Planning for a Day at the Magic Kingdom:

– Disney Dining Experiences that include characters and table service fill up fast. We couldn’t book any three weeks prior to our visit. Disney recommends that you book dining reservations starting 180 days in advance.
*Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) was a great alternative, especially traveling with older kids. Planet Hollywood Observatory and The House of Blues are just two of the 55 dining experiences offered along with street entertainment, hot air balloon rides and fantastic views of Disney fireworks displays.
– Midafternoon seemed to be a good time to take advantage of shorter stand-by times, as confirmed by some other park goers that we met (perhaps because those with park-hopper passes were in transit during this part of the day).
– An umbrella and a couple of extra dry t-shirts sufficed better than carrying dripping heavy ponchos through the park.
– Patience is a virtue and it’s important to acknowledge that not everyone has the same reverence to personal space when it comes to queuing in long lines.

Disney Park day two: the Animal Kingdom

We were happy to find that the Animal Kingdom, the largest in square feet of all Disney parks, allotted a flexible hour window in which to arrive at attractions and honor a fast pass reservation. With spacious walkways and natural settings, we found this park as relaxing as it was adventurous. The Kilimanjaro Safari provided unique and close encounters with African animals including endangered elephants, giraffes and cheetahs. Expedition Everest is a must do (sit in the back for the best view of the Yeti at the end) but all in all, we unanimously agreed that Pandora Island’s brand new (opened May 27, 2017) Flight of Passage was our favorite experience of the day.

Avatar Ride: Flight of Passage

When you walk onto Pandora Island you are immediately mesmerized by the scope of the set. With wildlife mimicking the pristine nature of the movie, hanging wooden bows are interlaced with colorful flowers and glowing plant life that illuminates you, after the sun goes down, from underneath. It’s like a dense rain forest of magic, exotic as it is familiar to your James Cameron (Director of the movie Avatar, 2009) induced imagination.

It first seemed dubious that fast passes were maxed out for the ride Flight of Passage that boasted stand-by wait times no shorter than 75 minutes. Yet, once we started the trek of the longer line with cinematic features throughout (it was like being backstage of the movie set) we wouldn’t have had it any other way. We encountered the space ship with flat-paneled transparent computer screens and half-littered workstations. Handwritten notes advertised the sale of old equipment or warned one of eating someone else’s lunch.

When it finally came time to enter into the ride, each passenger was assigned a number and matched with an avatar of their own. We then climbed onto the back of a simulated banshee, strapped in tight, anticipating but not yet knowing that the ride of a lifetime was about to begin. Dropping hundreds of feet at a time, swirling, facing predators, we soared in and out of trees and ocean waves, met with a pack of rhino looking animals, smelled fresh breezes and earthy dung. We forgot we were citizens of earth and became part of this alternative half futuristic, half prehistoric world. So well did Disney pull this off and exceed 4-D expectations that I wanted to shout, “Bravo!”. I think Walt would have been proud had he heard our youngest say, “I want to be part of the N’avi.” After that ride, don’t we all?

Planning for a Day at the Animal Kingdom:

– Don’t discount smaller attractions like the Swiss Family Tree House and Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail.
– Foodies rejoice! There is adult food that is easy to access. Try the mouth watering tikka masala chicken at Harambe Market in Africa (we went back for two helpings) or offer the kids alternatives to hot dogs through chicken fried rice or egg rolls in the Asian Yak and Yeti Local Food Cafe.
– While I recommend a full day, the park stays open until 11 PM and seemed to get busier in the late afternoon. If you have to choose your time, there’s more open space and lower wait times for attractions during the morning.

*Note on App from Part 1: While I was headed off by a friend to just use cellular data while at Disney Parks, app usage did drastically drain my phone battery which was remedied by the portable charger we brought along. There are charging kiosks available but why spend part of your day there when you can plan ahead and be prepared?

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