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Going on a Disney vacation? Get a reality check

by Suzanne Rowan Kelleher /  / Updated  / Source:

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It’s 4 p.m. in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. The park’s been open for about eight hours and the heat and excitement are taking a toll. Look around and you’ll see some cranky, worn-out faces. And those are just the grown-ups. A mother pulls her little boy by the arm, telling him to hurry up and walk faster. A toddler is crying in her stroller, while her parents argue about whether they’re really going to wait in yet another long line. At some point during the day, these folks stopped having fun. But here they still are, trying to squeeze their hard earned money’s worth out of their dream vacation.

Don’t want to become one of those families? Then listen and learn from two folks who have seen and done it all. We asked Bob Sehlinger, author and executive publisher of "", and Deb Wills, founder of , to offer their advice to families planning a trip to Disney World. Here are their nuggets of wisdom:

Arrive with a game plan. “You need to do research,” says Wills. “Realize that Walt Disney World comprises over 47 square miles, more than twice the size of Manhattan. Would you go to Manhattan without a plan?”

Lower the bar. “Accept that you are not going to be able to see and do it all in one trip,” says Wills. “First, you need to get a fix on what you most want to experience.” Unless you have more than a week, consider cutting the number of parks you visit this time around and saving the rest for a future visit. “Don’t worry,” assures Sehlinger, “They’re not going to ship the dang thing in a box to Cambodia. You can come back.”

Understand the physical demands. A lot of visitors arrive at the World with zero level of fitness, says Sehlinger. “They are completely unprepared for how much walking they’ll be doing, which can be as much as 12 miles per day.” Consider putting the whole family on a mini training regimen. “About a month before you come to Walt Disney World, start taking your kids for walks around the neighborhood to build their endurance,” Sehlinger suggests. You may be shocked to see how quickly your children ask to be carried or complain about being tired. “The goal,” says Sehlinger, “should be to do four or five miles without anyone falling apart.”

Set yourself up for success. “Come up with a list of four or five things to do every day, and no more than that,” suggests Wills. “When you’ve accomplished those things, then everything else is gravy.” (For help designing your itineraries, see our .) Use this strategy as an opportunity to get the kids involved. Before you set out each morning, let each family member select one attraction that she most wants to experience that day. Then design an itinerary that incorporates everyone’s wish. Don’t be surprised if Junior says that all he really wants is to swim in the hotel pool. Look at this as an opportunity for a midday break.

Think marathon, not sprint. “So many people get caught up in the color and excitement of being at Walt Disney World and overextend on their very first day,” warns Sehlinger. “By day three or four, they’re exhausted and have to sleep in one morning or skip a day at the parks. They’d have had much more fun if they’d just done an attitude adjustment before leaving home.” Avoid planning two full days in the parks back-to-back, especially if your kids are young. Consider sleeping in one morning and then taking in a late-morning character breakfast, or calling it quits after lunch and then relaxing by the hotel pool. is an authoritative online guide to family trip-planning. The site features reviews of kid-friendly hotels and resorts, expert planning advice, readers' travel tips, destination insider guides, vacation deals, and more. Subscribe to our newsletter to hear about resort specials and exclusive, money-saving offers.

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