So you’re going to Disney World. You’ve bitten the bullet, given up the fantasy that the priciest vacation you’d ever take would be to a private villa in Java, and booked a trip to the Magic Kingdom and its themed sequelae. If you have, you’ve already shelled out approximately $2.7 billion, so you might as well whip out your Visa in service of one of the Disney guidebooks that seem to be proliferating like, well, like mice. Or Mouseketeers.
What’s that you say? You don’t see the point of a guide when part of the theme park’s appeal is that you can simply show up, plunk down the price of admission, and spend the day ambling from one artfully artificial reality to another?
Sucker. In Orlando, they refer to the sprawling network of fun factories as The World. The World has its own roads, its own buses, its own cops, and its own pecking order. The hapless souls who enter without a good guidebook can expect to spend their fantasy vacation on the subculture’s lowest strata, standing in one gargantuan line after another wondering what all the talk of enchantment is about.
There are dozens, but the Disney-gaming guide that helped my clan make the most of every moment of a recent trip to Animal Kingdom, the Magic Kingdom, and Epcot is the prosaically titled Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. We’re talking 850 pages of strategies so detailed Machiavelli would kneel in awe. There are itineraries for each park, and variations for different personalities. Teensy type says which rooms in which resorts are closest to the pool-shuttle-restaurant-arcade and which have the best views.
God knows who first thought to undertake such research, but the authors have actually compiled statistics pinpointing the exact best moment to enter the queue for each attraction, the better to cram more of each park into each day. Their instructions for zigging and zagging from one corner of The World to other may seem demented, but they’ll have you in and out of Space Mountain before the lumpenproletariat has figured out how to catch the shuttle from the parking lot.
Pick the most type-A person in your party and appoint them the keeper of the manual. My party of four had two such individuals, one of them 45 and the other 10. My 7-year-old and I left the triangulating to them, while we took charge of snacks and morale. (More on those snacks in a moment, for on this point the guides merely sow confusion.)
Our borderline OCD approach enabled us to zip effortlessly onto the best roller coaster ever — a replica of Mt. Everest rising over Florida’s flat, tropical tree line — which normally entails a two-hour wait. We rode Soarin’, a hang-glider ride at Epcot, at the recommended time and loved it so much we went twice; people who arrived around lunchtime couldn’t get on at all that day. We laughed hysterically when things seemed to run across our seats during a movie about bugs, and again when the Technicolor parrots in an exotic bird show dove through the audience before returning to their trainers.
In Animal Kingdom we took the safari over and over again, coming astonishingly close to different exotic creatures each time. Per the book’s suggestion, during the times when the heat and crowds peaked, we returned to our resort for naps and a dip in the pool.
One caveat about the books: Skip over the endless chapters about the dining options and whether you should splash out on an all-inclusive meal plan. The food stinks. Yes, Disney has some of the finest fine-dining destinations ’tween shining seas, but you must reserve months in advance and expect to drain the kids’ college fund by lunchtime. Better to get a kitchenette and lay in cereal and sandwich fixings.
Our room at Animal Kingdom Lodge was one of the poshest I’ve ever stayed in. It looked out on an African veldt populated by zebras, water buffalo, giraffes, wildebeest, and other animals I’d never even heard of. What misguided person would try to get the kids to sit still in a white-napkin joint when they could enjoy PBJs on a private balcony while watching an ostrich lay an egg from 20 feet?
(The food stinks, subchapter A: There is in fact a swath of America that has not yet welcomed Starbucks. There is virtually no coffee in The World. I called the concierge at my resort to ask about this and she acted as if it were the first time she’d fielded this question. All I ever found in the way of coffee was a single Nescafé dispenser in a basement cafeteria. Seriously — what was old Walt smoking when he created a Paradise that would pitch together over-stimulated ankle-biters and elders nursing the unusually piercing headaches that accompany caffeine withdrawal?)
Why doesn’t everybody get the manual, thereby destroying its system-gaming power? Good question. People are sheep, is all I can say. If the Disney machine sets them in front of a day-glo castle and tells them cartoon characters will issue forth momentarily it will never occur to them that this might be their golden opening to ride Big Thunder Mountain.
If it seems like a minute-by-minute itinerary would suck all of the joy out of your trip, know that madding hordes notwithstanding, the kingdom is magic indeed and a little advance work will enable you to see more of it.
Beth Hawkins is a Minneapolis writer.