I’ve been traveling my whole life, so I’m not easily fazed by trip-planning. Where to stay, what to eat, what to do while I’m there?
No problem, I’ve got it covered.
That’s before I encountered Disney World.
Save for a few hours I spent there with my aunt and grandmother when I was 10, I was a complete newbie when it came to Mickey and his giant, touristy Orlando kingdom.
It didn’t matter until last year, when my 5-year-old son, Finn, came home from school talking about Disney World. A few kids in his class had gone and raved about it at lunch. I could tell Finn had no idea what wonders the theme park actually held, but he wanted in on whatever it was.
So when I was invited on an all-expenses-paid press trip to stay at the year-old Grove Resort & Spa — and check out Disney for a day — I jumped at the opportunity. This was going to be fantastic.
The problem of where to stay was already solved: The Grove, which is about 15 minutes by free hotel shuttle from the Disney Transportation and Ticket Center at the Magic Kingdom, opened in March 2017 and boasts 878 suites over 106 acres.
The rooms are huge — and more affordable than any hotel located within Disney’s gates (one-bedroom, one-bathroom suites with full kitchens start at $180 a night, while two-bedroom, two-bathroom ones start at $203). The resort feels like an oasis from the crowds, a place to relax and muster up strength before (and after) braving the parks.
In March, the Grove unveiled its Surfari Water Park. So Finn and I spent the first day of the trip floating down the lazy river on inflatable tubes and splashing around in the pools. I could have told him our resort was Disney World and he would have believed me.
I was tempted, because planning our day within the Disney empire was completely overwhelming. Everyone kept telling me I needed a “strategy,” which stressed me out further. I figured we wanted to go to the Magic Kingdom, as that was the park that seemed best suited to kids his age, but I didn’t know much more than that.
A one-day pass had been provided to me as part of the press trip, but normally, a one-day ticket (ages 10 and up) for the Magic Kingdom costs $119, a child pass for the same (ages 3 to 9) costs $113. FastPass is included in the price of each ticket; this service basically allows you to make a reservation for up to three rides (or shows) and enables you to go on that ride without a wait time; without a FastPass, most of the rides have a wait time of 20 minutes or more.
There are FastPass kiosks throughout the park that can be used to make new reservations after you’ve gone on one of your FastPass rides. I used the Disney website to get timed tickets for three rides: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain and Peter Pan’s Flight.
I thought I was all set.
Spoiler alert: I was not. In my desire to nab FastPasses for popular rides (or, really, the ones I had heard of), I didn’t spend much time researching which of the Magic Kingdom’s 46 rides would be my son’s speed — literally.
So our 9 a.m. jaunt on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad threatened to set the tone for the rest of the day. I’d forgotten that Finn takes after me. We don’t like fast or scary rides; this didn’t change just because we were at Disney. “This is a terrible idea!” the train lover screamed, as the rickety roller coaster accelerated. When we climbed out of the cars a few minutes later, shaken, he underscored his point: “I only want to go on relaxing rides!”
So that became our mission for the rest of the day. We went on the Prince Charming Regal Carrousel, strolled through the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, caught the Festival of Fantasy Parade, and went on the It’s a Small World ride (we skipped Splash Mountain in favor of the latter, even though it was a half-hour wait).
I was so determined for him to have an amazing time that I didn’t consider that an amazing time at Disney is not one size fits all. The thrilling rides a friend’s children loved would not be Finn’s favorites — and that’s OK.
He was beaming the whole time we were on the ferry that takes visitors over to the Magic Kingdom from the main transportation center. He didn’t want to go on Splash Mountain, but riding the Monorail back to the parking lot at the end of the day was a highlight.
He didn’t much care about the lunch reservation I’d made at the Diamond Horseshoe, an Old West saloon-style eatery I thought he’d get a kick out of, but he loved plowing through a cookie sundae while sitting on a bench outside and watching Peter Pan run by. And when he asked to go back to the Grove hours earlier than I’d expected so that we could play in the pools, I said yes.
When traveling with kids, it turns out, sometimes the real fun happens when you let them make the plans.