Planning A Trip With My Non-Disney Family

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Like most Walt Disney World enthusiasts I love the planning and anticipation of an upcoming trip.  Heck, I currently have four in the works!  And while many of our readers here at totally get my love of Disney World, my family does not.  So imagine my delight when my brother strolled into my office and said, “Hey, would you like to go to Disney World?”  I’m not sure if I squealed with delight before or after exclaiming, “yes!”

You see, the last time the Helmstetters took a family trip to WDW was approximately 1987.  I was 4, my brother was 10, and we stayed in the Polynesian because it was one of the only options.  So now that my brother has three very adorable kids, it is time for him and his family to make that American right of passage trip.  Luckily for him his sister is, as he put it, a Disney PhD.  Since planning a trip for my whole family will be a new experience for me, I thought I would take our blog readers along for the ride to take a glimpse into planning a family trip with folks who aren’t so sure what to expect from the Vacation Kingdom.

So let’s dive right in and start from the very beginning.  There will be eight of us embarking on this journey: my parents, my brother and his lovely wife, my nieces ages 6 and 4 at the time of travel, my nephew who will be 2, and I, Auntie Kristen, acting as tour guide and creator of Disney magic.  With ages ranging from 63 to 2 years old, we’ll have quite a few bases to cover when considering everyone’s wants and needs on this trip.  I’m hoping that documenting some of our considerations during planning will help you with your multi-generational trip.

The first thing I did was order the latest edition of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World for each household.  This way everyone could read up on whatever topics are important and ask me any questions before we make our trip.  Of course, I also sent my brother and sister-in-law to to check out some of our services there.  When planning with people of a certain generation (i.e. my parents) you may want to consider their technological limitations.  I realize that many people their age are completely capable of checking out websites for information.  My parents are not those people.  A copy of the Unofficial Guide is a much better option for them.

So now that they were provided with some background information, it was time to get to planning.  We will have to travel during a school break since my sister-in-law is a teacher.  We settled on trying to travel during the President’s Day break since here in the Northeast schools are often off for the entire week.  Being the staffer I am, I immediately checked out our crowd calendar.  One of the awesome features of our site is our crowd predictions.  Our statisticians work hard to forecast how heavy crowds will be for every day of the year!  Be sure to check them out before your next trip.  When I saw level 9 crowds predicted during our dates, I cringed a bit, but with my knowledge and a good Touring Plan, we should be able to manage just fine.

Once we settled on approximate dates, it was time to look at airfare.  Although there will be eight of us, we will only need seven tickets since the youngest can be passed along laps during the trip.  We found decent fares since we could be flexible about our travel dates during the week off from school.  My parents and I will definitely be flying from Newark to Orlando International, but my brother is now thinking about driving his brood, so we’ll see what happens there.

Next, it was time to decide where to stay.  This weekend I went over to my brother’s house to show him and his wife pictures of resorts on various websites to give them an idea of their many options.  They couldn’t believe how many resorts were on Disney property.  Their faces lit up when they saw the Animal Kingdom Lodge.  They loved the idea of sitting on their room’s balcony and letting the girls check out the animals roaming the savanna.  My nieces love animals, so this seems like a perfect fit to make a bit of magic for them.  I also think my parents will enjoy the scenery and the opportunity to relax by the pool and to watch the delight on their grandchildren’s faces when they see their first giraffe.

I was sure to explain all of the benefits associated with staying at a Disney resort to them, but I think they were already sold on the Animal Kingdom Lodge just from the photos and the promise of animals outside their window.  I’m sure they will still appreciate the availability of complimentary transportation and other such details once they get there, even if they are not so concerned with those details now.  I emailed my favorite Disney travel agent, and she was gracious enough to give us a few lodging options.  Her help sealed the deal for a savanna view room at the Animal Kingdom Lodge.  We’ll be booking two rooms and hoping for a wonderful stay.

That is about as far as we’ve gotten, but in the next few days I’m hoping to solidify some of our other plans.  I’m so used to throwing together a trip with friends that the element of keeping kids, parents, a brother, and a first-time visitor sister-in-law happy seems like a daunting task.  They are looking to me and my background as a Disney nerd to enhance their experience, and I want to be sure to deliver.  I’ve never traveled with kids or older folks before, so any advice from our readers would be much appreciated!

I will be reporting on my family’s trip planning progress from time to time in the coming months before we take our trip in February.  In upcoming posts I’ll discuss ticket options, dining options, and everything else to keep my family happy, so stay tuned!

Kristen Helmstetter

Kristen Helmstetter is an Unofficial Guide researcher who will share her 20-something perspective of all things Walt Disney World with blog readers. Kristen’s email address is You can also follow her on Twitter: @khelmstetter.

24 thoughts on “Planning A Trip With My Non-Disney Family

  • September 21, 2011 at 8:10 am

    So, will your family be open to using a touring plan and getting to the parks prior to opening? I really look forward to reading the rest of your posts in this series, Kristen. 🙂

    • September 21, 2011 at 3:20 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Amy! I think it’s safe to say we’ll be at least loosely be using Touring Plans. The kids get up early so I’m sure we’ll be there early, and I’ve already mandated there will be breaks in the middle of the day to avoid meltdowns (and not just from the kids). Everyone seems to be on board with this plan so hopefully it will work out nicely.

  • September 21, 2011 at 8:28 am

    first……GOOD LUCK!! I’ve been in your shoes and it is incredibly stressful and frustrating! I think the hardest part for me with planning a family trip like this, with 1 Disney expert and a bunch of newbies is that it will be really hard for me to “slow down” and not plan another trip for myself and do what I wanted to do. No one else knew what to do, so the guide books were a great idea. With girls that age, you will probably be spending a lot of time in character lines and fantasy land. just remember that you will be acting as a guide on this trip, and that your main audience is under the age of 8! I can’t wait to follow along with you!

    • September 21, 2011 at 3:22 pm

      I’m really all about catering the trip to everyone else. I go so often that it doesn’t matter to me if I don’t get to ride Space Mountain or eat at Le Cellier. I’m sure we’ll be spending a ton of time in Fantasyland and that is just fine with me. I think the other adults think the trip is just for the kids. I’m hoping to show them it can be enjoyable for them too. Thanks for the comment! I hope you wound up having a blast on your family trip!

  • September 21, 2011 at 9:04 am

    I am incredibly interested in how this plays out. We are going with my sister and brother inlaw and my parents next year. To round out the guests, there will be me, my husband and two children (9&7).

    I am the Disney maniac and am going to be working hard to make sure that the newbies have a good time (and making sure that my kids are on board with the plan).

    We have already picked a date and hotel (well, sort of, we are DVC and I can’t book the one I really want until 7 months out). Just ordered the latest version of the unofficial guide for them. (Great minds think alike!)

    It will be interesting to see if your next steps mirror mine.

    • September 21, 2011 at 3:23 pm

      I hope your trip turns out to be a great time, Diana! I’m sure we’ll have a good time too. I’m really all about doing whatever the family wants to do this time around since I go so often. I’m simply going to get them there easier. Thanks for the comment and I’ll be sure to check in with our progress regularly!

  • September 21, 2011 at 10:22 am

    I went to Disney World this year Jan 29 – Feb 11 with my husband; never been and”only going for the kids” my 13 year old daughter, 8 years old son with Aspegers and my 4 year old son, myself; second visit, and my in laws visited us for a couple of days. Everyone I repeat everyone had a good time. There is so much to see and do.

    What we did was have my in laws go two days to the parks they did a few things on their own and just wanted to see things thru their grandparents eyes.

    My advice is to not stress too much, what we did that worked is we got everyone to pick one must do at each park. We made sure we did those and everything else was a bonus. That way everyone got to do something that they wanted to do.

    Another piece of advice we did was everyone does not have to do everything. This the age difference and abilites or our kids we did some things together and some things apart. Our youngest could not go on some rides as he was too short and too scared so I planned for him to do different things when the big kids did those rides.

    Hope you have a great time and can’t wait to hear all about your Disney adventure.

    • September 21, 2011 at 3:36 pm

      I definitely want to keep the trip as stress free as possible. I’m totally willing to go with the flow. If the girls want to ride it’s a small world over and over Auntie Kristen will be there singing along. I think the problem is that my family is all so clueless about what they want to do at this point. Hopefully we can get to the point where they can pick some stuff out. I’m sure it will all work out and we’ll have a blast. Thanks for the comment!

  • September 21, 2011 at 10:22 am

    Can’t wait to hear your dining plans! My guess is that O’Hana will be a must do!

    • September 21, 2011 at 3:37 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Debra! Actually ‘Ohana isn’t on my list since my nieces eat like birds lol. Looking into a few character options in the parks for them.

  • September 21, 2011 at 11:37 am

    I can’t tell you how happy I am that you are posting about this. I have always wondered if I would be able to do a Disney Vacation with other people. The conversation has been coming up a lot recently in my family. I am a frequent visitor to the World as well as the “theme park commando” type. I would be traveling with newbies who would have no desire to plan anything, partly because they just don’t know better and partly because they are not people who like to plan stuff. Your situation may be different than mine, but I would love to read about any tips you may have about “planners” and “non-planners” traveling together without driving each other insane.
    Hope your vacation goes well!

    • September 21, 2011 at 3:39 pm

      Thanks, Amy! I think my setting out with plans and telling them how important to have at lease lose plans it is has helped. I don’t think we need to plan every minute, but I’ve made them see that we’re going during a busy time and we need to book things ASAP or they are not going to be options. Luckily, so far they seem willing to listen to my advice.

  • September 21, 2011 at 11:47 am

    If brother & family prefer not to fly, they should consider driving to Lorton, Virginia and hopping the Auto Train for the rest of the trip. They’ll still have their own car in Florida, but without having to drive all the way there, and they’ll sleep on the train in transit instead of stopping at a hotel along the highway. And if they book a family bedroom they can sleep in beds instead of sitting up in coach (which I have tried and DO NOT recommend). IMO the only real disadvantage is that it ain’t cheap. But it’s lots more fun and relaxing than either flying or driving, so IMO worth the extra cost. Taking the Auto Train is like having one really long theme park ride at the beginning and end of your trip!

    • September 21, 2011 at 1:09 pm

      My family almost always takes the auto train. You can pack whatever you want as long as it will fit in your vehicle. If you shop on your vacation, you just throw the shopping bags in your car when you are leaving. We have a family room booked for our upcoming trip and it is actually cheaper than flying (not always the case). For no additional charge you get wine and cheese at the beginning of your trip, dinner (again, with free wine), and breakfast. The food is actually pretty good. We love the comfort of having our own car and not having to worry about baggage restrictions.

      • September 21, 2011 at 3:46 pm

        Thanks for the tip on the auto train! I mentioned it to him just to provide the option, but it would probably be more expensive so I think he’s going to opt out this time.

  • September 21, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    We avoid standing in line for “the big five” by scheduling as many character meals as we can. The princess breakfast in Norway, Chef Mickey’s and The Crystal Palace can satisfy most kiddie(and adult) autograph desires.

    • September 21, 2011 at 3:53 pm

      Thanks, Vicki! The Crystal Palace is definitely on our short list. We’re trying to stick with in park experiences in case we’re relying on WDW transportation.

      • September 21, 2011 at 4:36 pm

        We had a great lunch at Hollywood & Vine with Handy Manny, some Little Einsteins, and Special Agent Oso in early December 2009. The food was decent, but not the best WDW Character Buffet, but it was pretty good. (And TIW discounts always help!) There was also a singer that led the kids in a song from Imagination Movers. My then preschooler, aged 4 and a half, loved it all. It was also a nice in-park break when the crowds picked up.

  • September 21, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    Two of my favorite trips to WDW were with my extended family in 1994 and 1998 when I was 11 and 15 (Kristen – I just discovered from this post that we’re the same age!)

    Thanks to a couple Disney trips with just my parents and sister before turning 10 I was already a theme park commando, and I remember being annoyed with my slow moving extended family on these trips for not being ready to go at every park opening, nor wanting to stay every night to close down the parks. Now looking back on those trips, I have some of my fondest family memories, and even if we had to wait in more lines than I normally care to, and even though we didn’t see everything, we had an incredible time and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

    • September 21, 2011 at 3:54 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Betsy! I’m not so sure this group will be commando touring, but that’s ok with me. I can do it next time. I just want to make a great time for everyone else. I want them to not be overwhelmed (and that is so easy to do at WDW) and take it all in and have fun with the family, especially the kids. Hopefully it will work out that way!

  • September 21, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    Kristen. Sounds like it’s gong to be a great trip. One thing we did this summer which worked well- one morning when Magic Kingdom opened at 8, we did slow loading attractions from 8-9 (dumbo, space mountain, tomorrowland speedway, etc.) then at 9 we started hitting several of the meet and greets of characters we wanted to see right as they came out. That way, we avoided long lines for the characters. That morning it was my wife and I, our daughters gee 2 & 10, and my parents. Also, i remember my parents took in Hall of Presidents while we saw Tianna and Naveen. Everyone had a blast and that’s the day that really sold everyone on rope drop.

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  • October 13, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    I go to WDW with my mom, who is in her 60’s, regularly. One of the big things I have noticed is that she really likes to look at the details. I think your parents may enjoys slowing down and checking out the fun and beautiful details in the parks. I also find that all ages love Toy Story Midway Mania. Putting them in line for it first thing and getting everyone fastpasses at the beginning of the day you’re in DHS will make everyone in your group happy!

  • January 4, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    We drove down this past June with 3 families in a 12 passenger van- 6 adults, an 8, 3, 2, 1 year old and 10 month old from Maryland- if we could do it I’m sure your brother can! It’s not so bad if you make frequent stops in between. My parents also came along separate. It worked really well because they went off on their own some of the time to do more “adult” stuff then joined up with the kids for awhile to enjoy them as well. Everyone had a great time- I’m sure you will too. Don’t forget to use rider swap! =)

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